The rules of attraction

Is Manon Lescaut a cold, clinical tale of the splendors and pitfalls of transactional sex, or is it a romantic Italian opera at its most lush and melodic? Actually, it’s both.  There’s always been a disconnect between Domenico Oliva and Luigi Illica’s adaptation of the Prévost novel and Puccini’s music. The libretto is episodic, with the title character portrayed as a calculating courtesan who abandons her lover des Grieux “without even a kiss goodbye.” This is however Puccini’s most romantic score. It swells with romantic ardor at every moment.

The director of a new DVD of this opera, Jonathan Kent, favors the transnational, exploitative aspects of the opera. His production is updated to modern times, and the opera begins at a seedy red light hotel. Manon Lescaut moves from a quick initiation into the sex trafficking world to being a spoiled porn star. 

The second act is set in a big plush bed where porn scenes are filmed. Her downfall is depicted as a reality tv show, and she expires in the gravel and pavement of an abadoned highway. But Manon Lescaut is no victim—she wields her sexual power with cold calculation, and even in the last act it’s not clear whether she’s remorseful or just very sick/hungry/desperate. Paul Brown’s designs effectively create a world where sex is a business.

It’s all fine and good, but lost in this clinical presentation of the sex-for-sale industry is the fact that Puccini’s score resembles Tristan und Isolde in that it conveys a world where two lovers drink the magic potion and then sing the most beautiful rapturous music for the entire evening.  The disparate elements of this opera are never really reconciled in a satisfying way.

This video release will be of interest to all fans of Jonas Kaufmann (and they are legion). Tenors have always loved and championed this opera for obvious reasons: it’s probably one of the showiest tenor vehicles in the operatic canon, up there with Andrea Chenier and Werther. The tenor gets to love, suffer, and impress the audience with how gorgeous his voice is for two hours.

This opera was a great favorite of Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Jussi Bjoerling, Richard Tucker and Mario del Monaco. Now uber-tenor superstar Jonas Kaufmann has made des Grieux his favored vehicle—he’s sung it in London, Munich, and is due to bring it to New York in February.

The London performances were preserved and released on video (just in time, it seems, for the New York premiere). It’s easy to see why Kaufmann is attracted to the role—it allows him to show off his brooding good looks and ardent, stentorian tenor voice.

One senses a certain power Kaufmann wields behind the scenes—Jonathan Kent’s production is rather hyperactive and demands a great deal of physicality (and leg-baring) from its female heroine, but Kaufmann is allowed to wear his trademark dark suit, curls, 5 o’clock shadow, and just sing. Oh, and have several onstage makeout sessions with Kristine Opolais. (Here’s a chance to see an exciting new partnership in opera—the New New Love Couple, though that’s onstage only.)

Kaufmann is a worthy exponent of Des Grieux. I know his timbre and style is not to everyone’s taste, but this role plays to his strengths—his voice can sound alternately lyrical and heroic. In “Donna non vidi mai” he sounded lovesick, but in the frenzied duets of Act Two and Act Four his voice had the reserves of thrilling trumpet-like horsepower that makes Kaufmann one of the most exciting singers on the stage today.

His chemistry with Opolais is fantastic—their scenes go beyond the basic side-embraces and air kisses typical of “opera acting” and sometimes veer into Donald Sutherland/Julie Christie Don’t Look Now-style voyeurism. I know that on February 12, 2016, there can only be two places I’ll be: either six feet under or watching Kaufmann and Opolais in Manon Lescaut.

Opolais’s Manon is a portrayal one can certainly admire for a host of reasons. She throws herself into the production with total fearlessness. The tall blonde beauty spends most of the opera in Frederick’s of Hollywood-style teddies and garters, but Opolais has the physique du rôle to pull it off.

She’s a committed actress, obviously works very hard, and as mentioned before, she has great chemistry with Kaufmann. Her voice, however, simply doesn’t bloom with the tidal climaxes Puccini’s music. She can get her voice to a note, but it has a tendency to stay there and no further.

When pressed there is a harshness and metallic edge to Opolais’s voice. One misses the plushness and bloom of a  Tebaldi, or the pungent Italian diction and attention to text of Magda Olivero or Renata Scotto. Among today’s sopranos one can just imagine how Anna Netrebko might sound in the same music and wish that Opolais’s voice didn’t have these built-in limitations.

Lescaut in Puccini’s opera is not nearly as rich of a character as he is in Massenet’s work, but Christopher Maltman brings the right amount of sleazy charm to the role. Maurizio Muraro is a fine actor, both menacing and predatory as Geronte, in this production a porn director. Antonio Pappano’s conducting of Puccini is wonderful—he gets that that this is Puccini’s most romantic score. I admit that when it comes to Manon Lescaut I’m with Puccini—I just sit back and listen to all that gorgeous music and swoon.