Ermonela Jaho as Manon in Act III © 2014 ROH/Bill Cooper
Ermonela Jaho as Manon in Act III
© 2014 ROH/Bill Cooper
Every opera poses an acting challenge to its prima donna. After all, producing perfect, melodious high octane singing is hard enough on its own without having to look the part at the same time. But Massenet’s Manon, whose 2010 production by Laurent Pelly started its first revival at Covent Garden last night, is particularly harsh on the singer of its title role, who has to assume a string of different personalities as the story progresses.

Ermonela Jaho as Manon in Act I © 2014 ROH/Bill Cooper
Ermonela Jaho as Manon in Act I
© 2014 ROH/Bill Cooper
Ermonela Jaho rose to the task magnificently, making us believe totally in each phase of Manon’s changing character: light-headed schoolgirl who can’t sit still, passionate but ambivalent lover, haughty and commanding beauty queen, manipulative seductress, harridan and, finally, figure of tragic exhaustion. It's rare – very rare – to see a soprano inhabit such a broad range of character so completely while maintaining a thoroughly decent vocal standard. In Acts I and II, it was remarkable to see the sheer amount of ground she covered capering up and down stairs, prompting one Twitter wag to suggest that after all that, it wasn't surprising that Manon dies of exhaustion in Act V. Jaho was particularly impressive in her Act III entrance aria “À quoi bon l’économie”, where her strutting exposition of the joys of spending brought the house down.

Met stalwart Matthew Polenzani couldn’t match Jaho in bringing his character to life, not least because Des Grieux, Manon’s lover, is a far narrower role: essentially, he is a cipher for the perennial figure of the impossibly infatuated man. Polenzani was perhaps less focused on his expression and movement and more on his voice, producing honeyed tones and a fine range of expressivity. The two lovers’ first duet “Nous vivrons à Paris” brought the house down, and Polenzani continued to be a delight to listen to for the whole evening.

Although the opera boasts a wide range of secondary characters, none has quite the same chance to shine. Christophe Mortagne showed off fine comic skills as the initially hapless but eventually vicious Guillot de Morfontaine; Audun Iversen gave strength and presence as Lescaut, Manon’s cousin. Alastair Miles was suitably authoritarian and sardonic as the Count, Des Grieux’s father.

Matthew Polenzani as Des Grieux, Ermonela Jaho as Manon © 2014 ROH/Bill Cooper
Matthew Polenzani as Des Grieux, Ermonela Jaho as Manon
© 2014 ROH/Bill Cooper
Laurent Pelly’s production moves the opera’s action from the pre-revolutionary ancien régime to the belle époque in which the opera was written. This sits naturally enough, since we know so much more about the world of sugar daddies and kept women from the literature of that period, and it allows Pelly and Jean-Jacques Delmotte to go to town on the costume designs (for the girls, at least – the men are mostly in standard evening dress). The colour scheme of the whole thing is fairly monochrome, with the girls resplendent in white lace – with the exception of some extravagant numbers in various shades of pink to make Manon herself stand out from the crowd. The sets are inventive but not overcomplicated: I particularly liked the skeletal rendering of Des Grieux’s apartment looking over a projection of Paris rooftops in Act II, and the simplicity of the church of St Sulpice in Act III. The underground gambling den of Act IV appealed less, a complicated series of ramps with tables sliding on and off stage.

I think it’s important to see Manon for what it is: an opéra comique which mixes a wide range of entertainment (varied musical styles, spoken dialogue, comedy, dance) while encompassing a number of set pieces. It does not have the musical architecture of Wagner, the focused intensity of Verdi or the dramatic realism of Puccini – although it has moments which approach each of those – and if you go to Manon expecting any of those things, you will be disappointed. What it does have is a series of varied musical numbers which are always melodious and have frequent moments of great beauty. Under the baton of Emmanuel Villaume, the Royal Opera orchestra did the music plenty of credit, without lifting me out of my seat with any great frequency.

Although Manon is a fairly long evening, there’s always something to keep you engaged throughout, and it struck me that this would make a good opera for a first date (for those operatically inclined, of course). This is a production worth seeing, if only for an awesome performance from Ermonela Jaho, who really gives one an insight into the character of the girl who wants it all and very nearly – but, tragically, not quite – gets it, and a fine piece of smooth, romantic singing from Polenzani.

***11