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Manon Lescaut review at Royal Opera House, London – ‘breathtaking orchestral playing’

Aleksandrs Antonenko and Sondra Radvanovsky in Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London
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Manon Lescaut stands at some remove from Puccini’s most popular operas – there are relatively few standout arias, plus something of a dramatic vacuum between Acts I and II – but under Antonio Pappano’s direction the orchestral playing is as persuasive as you could wish for. Every shift of mood and every streak of colouring is mined for full dramatic impact. It goes without saying these days that few conductors have such an affinity with Puccini, but this makes each achievement no less remarkable.

Jonathan Kent’s lascivious production, revived by Paul Higgins, updates the action to the present. In Act II, Manon – by now a young mistress to the older Geronte – is in Kent’s eyes a stay-at-home sex kitten, who is pleasured by the singing madrigalist and whose own minuet dance becomes a videographed soft porn show, watched by a row of bald men. In Act III the prostitutes awaiting deportation are re-exploited in a nearby brothel and the crowd gathered to witness their removal becomes the studio audience of some cruel reality TV show. All this is paraded in such vivid stage and costume designs that it’s often difficult to see beyond what seems like the production’s own misogyny into the world of sexual exploitation it might seem to reveal.

Sondra Radvanovsky doesn’t always appear comfortable in her writhing and grinding but brings a warmer than usual, mezzo-like quality to the title role. Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko has vocal flair and colour but his acting is less nuanced. Eric Halvarson and Levente Molnar give gratifyingly rounded performances as Geronte and Manon’s brother respectively.

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Breathtaking orchestral playing of Puccini’s score in a production that lacks authenticity