ManonJules Massenet - Manon

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2012 | Patrick Davin, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Silvia Vázquez, Ismaël Jordi, Massimiliano Gagliardo, Marcel Vanaud, Guy de Mey, Roger Joakim, Alexise Yerna, Sabine Conzen, Marie-Laure Coenjaerts | Live Internet Streaming, 20 June 2012

Manon is all about the impetuosity and the folly of youth, the love of the glamour of the here and now, living in the moment, wanting it all, making mistakes along the way and taking all that comes with it with no regrets. That at least is how it is for Manon Lescaut herself, a 16 year-old about to enter a convent and about to see those delicious possibilities put forever out of reach. For Chevalier des Grieux, the young student who sees her, falls in love with her and sweeps her away to Paris, there’s evidently some of the same youthful impetuosity, but he also has dreams and illusions about the future in a manner that isn’t quite compatible with the ambitions of Manon, and it’s in the conflict of their ideals and their experience with the realities of the world that ends up destroying the brief period of their little idyll - the innocence of youth is fleeting - and ultimately leads to tragedy.

The setting isn’t that important then, since these are universal characteristics and their consequences are all too recognisable and inevitable. What is important as far as making Massenet’s opera work on the stage is finding the right tone that captures that sense of youthful idealism, flightiness, inconstancy, innocence and flirtatiousness in the first half that develops into something darker and more substantial in the second. On that account, the orchestra of the Opéra Liège, if perhaps a little sluggish in some earlier parts of the opera, give an overall fine account of Massenet’s deceptively light five-act opera-comique in this new production for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, conductor Patrick Davin guiding them particularly well through in the darker passions of the latter half.

Manon must be seen as a journey in this respect, and if the first half feels slight, that’s how Massenet composed it, with its real strength and beauty only becoming apparent by the time we get to the conclusion. It’s undoubtedly with this in mind that Liège’s current director in residence Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera structures the production to come around in a full circle, the Prologue and initial scene of Act 1 opening where the opera closes, with Manon and des Grieux meeting again at Le Havre and looking back over the happiness of their time together, the past initially behind a screen but gradually coming to life again as if it has all been ‘relived’ by Manon in her final moments at the end of Act 5. The flashback idea is by no means an original one - there was even a hint of it in Mazzonis di Pralafera’s last production for Liège, La Traviata - but there is a valid reason for it here that is echoed in the repeated musical references at the end of both works, that is vital for tying the whole work together, blending the joy with the tragedy in a manner that makes the journey all the more significant. It’s a typically perceptive response to the work on the part of Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, and it’s one that helps carry the weaker elements in the production - although, really, there are few of those in this excellent production.

There’s at least not much to be concerned about as far as the singing is concerned. Manon demands two strong and capable singers of absolute conviction and the casting of two young Spanish singers, Silvia Vázquez and Ismaël Jordi, certainly meets those requirements admirably. Both need to be capable of conveying that sense of youthful innocence and wonder, capable of being swept off their feet by the discovery of new sensations, caught up in the glamour of themselves and the possibilities open to them. They both however need to be capable of demonstrating a deeper emotional register for the second half of the work, and again, there are no serious failings there. As Manon Lescaut, Silvia Vázquez has a strong enough voice and is capable of hitting all the emotional and vocal requirements, only sounding slightly out of pitch at the highest points. She carries the transformation of Manon from the impetuous youth of Act 1 to social butterfly on the Cour-la-reine promenade in Act 3 with the absolute conviction necessary.

Ismaël Jordi, who impressed me in the alternate cast for the Liceu’s 2011-12 production of Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, again shows himself to be a terrific up-and-coming lyric tenor as des Grieux here. His acting isn’t always the strongest, but some responsibility for this must go to the director, who, like his La Traviata, doesn’t always find something for the principals to do other than project out to the audience. When you are getting singing however like Jordi’s Act 3 ‘Je suis seul! …Ah fuyez, douce image!‘, as fine a rendition of Manon and des Grieux’s duet ‘N’est-ce plus ma main‘ and as powerful a scene as the one here between des Grieux and his father - wonderfully sung by Marcel Vanaud - those concerns are rendered relatively minor by the quality of the vocal expression of the sentiments the characters are experiencing.

It’s actually in this magnificent performance of the second scene of Act 3 that you can really see the production and the qualities of the structure and singing start to come together, reflecting the strengths of the work itself. Placing the single interval in the middle of Act 3 proves to be most effective in this regard, as there is a natural separation there between the different tones of the two halves of the opera. The sets and costumes are, for the most part, functional, never really establishing any unique character but, always busy with characters, chorus and extras, it works perfectly well for the purposes of the work with the overall structure of the piece. It’s well enough designed however so that the first three acts flow together with scarcely a pause for a scene change, which is quite a feat. One might like a bit more time to get to know the characters and enjoy the scenes - I think there may have been a few careful cuts in the dialogue passages here and there - but in a way it reflects the rush of youth, and, in the end, you come back to see these scenes through the light of experience later, which is perfectly appropriate and indeed well-considered for achieving the maximum impact, the opera ending powerfully with Manon returning to ‘notre petite table‘ of Act 2.

Manon is the final free Live Internet Streaming Broadcast of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie at Liège’s 2011-12 season at the temporary structure of the Palais Opéra while renovation work is being carried out at the Théâtre Royal. Recordings are available to view again in full on the Dailymotion site for one weekend, usually a few weeks after the initial broadcast. The 2012-12 Season, recently announced on their web-site, has a great deal to look forward to on their return to the main opera house, including Verdi’s I Due Foscari and rarely performed works by César Franck and André-Modeste Grétry.