On an opera stage, doing sexy is hard. Particularly the sort of scary, man-eating, self-destructive sexy that is the characteristic of the eponymous heroine of Manon Lescaut. But in the Royal Opera’s first revival of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production, Sondra Radvanovsky acts the role to perfection: she makes it all too easy to understand the fatal attraction that will be the ruin of Des Grieux.

Aleksandrs Antonenko (Chevalier des Grieux) and Sondra Radvanovsky (Manon Lescaut) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Aleksandrs Antonenko (Chevalier des Grieux) and Sondra Radvanovsky (Manon Lescaut)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Puccini’s first big hit shocked his contemporaries by the tawdry nature of its material – a far more uncompromising take on the Abbé Prévost’s story than Massenet’s version of just a decade earlier. Kent and designer Paul Brown’s staging accentuates this brilliantly, most notably in the Act II dancing lesson scene, which he turns into a ghastly pornographic peep show that the sugar daddy Geronte is staging for his rich friends. Manon’s living quarters in Geronte’s house are a crystal cage, her costume is straight out of Pigalle, TV cameras are everywhere. The tawdriness accentuates yet further in Act III, where the harbour at Le Havre, home to the ship which will transport Manon to the United States, is surrounded by brothels; the girls at the roll call are coarse and clearly from the same stable. The set for Act IV is another shocker: Manon and Des Grieux come to the end of their road quite literally on a giant collapsed flyover in the desert – a broken boulevard of broken dreams.

Sondra Radvanovsky (Manon) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Sondra Radvanovsky (Manon)
© ROH | Bill Cooper
Radvanovsky puts in a lot of energy vocally as well as in her acting. Her timbre is warm, there’s plenty of power to compete with the orchestra and although she uses a fair deal of vibrato and often slides into a note, the overall effect was attractive musically as well as being fully in character. As Des Grieux, Aleksandrs Antonenko has a voice that’s strong and open at the low end, but he takes risks with high notes and they don’t always pay off: the voice  tended to close up on the highs and he didn’t always hit the right pitch. Des Grieux gets two big arias, first the flirtatious “Tra voi, belle, brune e bionde” and then the infatuated “Donna non vidi mai”. Both are supposed to be showstoppers, real calling cards for the up-and-coming Puccini to announce to the audience that he was the heir to the Italian opera tradition, but Antonenko didn’t really nail either. This wasn't the only thing that made Act I rather lacklustre: the orchestra also seemed off colour compared to my expectations of Antonio Pappano. The playing was accurate and proceeded smoothly enough, but I missed a sense of the powerful drive and swell that this music can generate. Both Antonenko and the orchestral performance improved through the evening, however, leading to a touching, tender Act IV, in which Radvanovsky and Alexanders Antonenko acted and sang superbly: I felt almost embarrassed to be intruding voyeuristically on such intimacy.
Sondra Radvanovsky, Levente Molnár (Lescaut), Emily Edmonds (Madrigalist), Eric Halfvarson (Geronte) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Sondra Radvanovsky, Levente Molnár (Lescaut), Emily Edmonds (Madrigalist), Eric Halfvarson (Geronte)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Supporting performances were strong. Luis Gomes was a cheerful, open-hearted Edmondo, with a pleasant brightness to his tenor; Eric Halfvarson was in fine voice and suitably sleazy as Geronte; Levente Molnár provided good support as Manon’s brother.

Manon Lescaut is the essence of verismo: an opera that grabs us into the story and makes us all too aware that the characters on stage are cut from the same cloth as ourselves. Jonathan Kent’s staging works well for me, doing an excellent job of accentuating the shock value (by the way, for those who saw it in 2014, the sightline problems seem to have been resolved). This production is worth the entrance money for Radvanovsky and especially for Act II, and I suspect that the rest of orchestral performance will improve through the run.