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How to Stage an Opera: the ugliness of Manon Lescaut

Why Jonathan Kent and Paul Brown’s production focuses on the ugly side of Puccini’s opera.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

1 July 2014 at 4.57pm | 18 Comments

Our' How to Stage an Opera' series offers different perspectives on the practicalities of staging an opera, from the initial research through to the final performance. Here we see how Jonathan Kent's controversial production draws on the sordid reality within Puccini's great drama.

For many, Puccini embodies the romantic operatic composer. He is probably the most widely recognized operatic composer full stop, with individual arias (‘Nessun dorma’) and full works (Madama Butterfly) penetrating public consciousness. It's easy to see why. His melodies are memorable. Their lyrical lines flatter opera singers worth their salt. His orchestra, built on modern symphonic lines, allows for thrillingly rich textures. His stories of an all-consuming, desperate love, crushed by a cruel world, have become an operatic cliché. Puccini's operas offer pure escapist entertainment.

But did Puccini want more than that? Do the lushness of his music and the dramatic immediacy of his storytelling represent a honey-trap? It's easy, for example, to forget that for Puccini and the audiences of his day almost all of his heroines were women 'of dubious virtue', with Edgar's Fidelia, the princess Turandot and Madama Butterfly's Cio-Cio-San (though she's a borderline case) rare exceptions. There is much in the operas that is horrible: the appalling loss of Mimì's death in La bohème, the injustice of Cio-Cio-San's suicide, the filthy bargain Scarpia offers Tosca, the cruelty of Suor Angelica's family. Is all this just spice for the drama?

Antonio Pappano has said of Puccini’s music that it 'is often done with great splashes of passion… but it’s more than that. It has to be balanced by refinement; the passion has to be true, the tragedy has to be true'. This balance must also be maintained in the visual aspects of a production. Directors and designers, too, have a tightrope walk between soaring passion and emotional truth.

The story of Manon Lescaut is nasty. In Act I a brother pimps his sister. In Act II the sister's greed has compelled her to demean herself with an old man she neither loves nor respects. That old man is able to exact revenge for her cruelty to him because of her greed. In Act III a crowd gathers to take entertainment from the grief of others. And in Act IV a young man, who has sacrificed everything to save the woman he loves, fails, and is left helplessly alone with her corpse. If we want a simple tragic love story one is there – love at first sight, he tries to rescue her, she dies in his arms – and the loveliness of Puccini's music allows us to enjoy that. But his music also has the complexity and precision to support a more troubling presentation.

In their 2014 production for The Royal Opera, director Jonathan Kent and designer Paul Brown take a 2014 setting, non-naturalistic and theatrical. Their decision to discard the opera's original 18th-century setting makes explicit its subtext.

Take Act II, which seems to have been genuinely upsetting for many audience members. In a more traditional setting we might have seen an elegant lady in an elegant drawing room, watching a concert and then having a dancing lesson. Kent and Brown's production makes the subtext of such a setting unavoidable. The Barbie-pink cage tells us immediately of Geronte's wealth, of Manon's love of tasteless acquisition, of her naivety that she could think of these possessions as 'hers'. We see that she is a toy for Geronte to play with, a beautiful possession to display before his friends. We understand that Manon does not understand that this is a terrible place for her to be. By making this act so horrible, Kent and Brown not only anticipate our anxiety at the end of the act as Manon stays to gather her treasures rather than flee with Des Grieux, but heighten it. Many have found this act upsetting; and it is meant to be so.

Is it wrong for Puccini to be upsetting? Or is it wrong that such a story should ever not be upsetting?

Read other posts in our 'How to Stage an Opera' series.


Manon Lescaut runs from 22 November–12 December 2016. Tickets are still available. This is a co-production with Shanghai Grand Theatre.

This article has 18 comments

  1. naomi layish responded on 1 July 2014 at 9:58pm Reply

    What utter rubbish. Listen to the music for heavens sake, and read the libretto.
    If what you write were true, there would be no tragedy, no magnificence in the magic. No production today stages act 2 in a drawing room setting- what nonsense. And please , dont try putting yourself in Puccini's place.
    The real horror is that this superb performance by the leads, and perfect balance between singers and orchestras
    -bravo Pappano- clashes with the director's nonsensical 'concept' of the production.
    A great shame that singers dont have the guts to protest this abuse of their artistry.

  2. John responded on 1 July 2014 at 11:47pm Reply

    "We understand that Manon does not understand that this is a terrible place for her to be". What justifies this statement? What is "In quelle trine morbide" if not a poignant expression of the hollowness in her life with Geronte?

    The problem with making "the subtext" explicit and turning this into a modern day story is that no woman with the freedoms of a liberal western democracy would abandon a comfortable life with their partner to become an abused sex object unless she is severely psychologically damaged, which is certainly not suggested by the libretto. It is hardly surprising audience members found this misogynistic, since it implies that modern women in abusive relationships and in the sex trade choose their lives rather than being compelled into them.

    It's interesting too that you claim Puccini's music has the "complexity and subtlety to support a more troubling presentation", but you don't actually discuss the music - you discuss the bare bones of the story. Can Puccini's lush romantic orchestration really support the hard-hitting interpretation you claim?

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 2 July 2014 at 2:10pm

      Hi John,

      Many thanks for your comments.

      You’re right that ‘In quelle trine morbide’ is a poignant expression of Manon’s regret for her life with Des Grieux. However (if you’ll bear with me!), I think there is a good deal in the text to support the interpretation I’ve outlined above, that she doesn’t realize the danger of her situation. She complains to Lescaut of being ‘bored’, rather than frightened; at the moment of Des Grieux’s entry she is exulting in her beauty; she discusses ‘her’ wealth, promising that it is all for Des Grieux; she insults Geronte when he interrupts, and doesn’t seem fearful of his reaction; she rejoices in her freedom when Geronte leaves her with Des Grieux; and of course finally she stays to gather her jewels despite the urging of Des Grieux. To me this suggests the behaviour of a woman who realizes something is missing but does not understand that she is in a dangerous place, dealing with a dangerous man – a plight which, I feel, is made viscerally threatening in Kent’s production.

      Perhaps it’s my fondness for the films of David Lynch that governs my response to your second comment, but my feeling is that the idea of dangerous and seemingly incongruous extremes of society existing within an apparently ‘liberal western democracy’ is a familiar dramatic trope – not just in Lynch, but in the works of David Cronenberg, J.G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, James Purdy and occasionally in noir cinema. Personally I found this one of the most exciting things about Kent’s production, that he incorporates a vernacular that, I feel, seems particularly suited to the extreme emotions of operatic tragedy. In this living non-naturalistic nightmare, Manon falls into a malevolent underworld partly through her own actions – but this does not mean she deserves or has chosen what she gets. The true guilt of course still remains with the perpetrators Geronte and Lescaut, who construct the trap into which she falls.

      Apologies that space restrictions meant I could not go into the music in more detail – although, that said, the point I wanted to make is extremely basic (probably too much so!). The motivic structure of Manon Lescaut is clearly very sophisticated; the almost oppressive presence of the simple ‘Manon’ motif is one example. The score is a lot more than good tunes strung together, and rewards scrutiny. If we’re thinking about the score this carefully, should we not also be thinking about the story in such a way? In other words, should we not try and look beyond the obvious? This, I suppose, is my main point in the above: that Puccini’s music deserves our careful attention, and a production that jolts us from our comfort zone and forces us to look at it in a different light is, I think, probably doing a good thing. But then, I was a fan!

      All best,

    • John responded on 2 July 2014 at 5:30pm

      Thanks for taking the time to respond, Rachel. If I may, I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "non-naturalistic" - it seemed to me and many other audience members that what Jonathon Kent presented aimed precisely at being naturalistic in the sense of being staged in a recognisably real environment without any obvious transgressions of verisimilitude - surely that's why it was staged in contemporary dress? It just wasn't a literal staging done using the librettists' stage directions.

      The issue for me here isn't that Jonathon Kent wanted to flag up certain issues of gender politics and power play (which I applaud him for doing!), it's that relocating it to a modern context fundamentally changes Manon's predicament. In the original setting, Manon is a young woman with very few rights - she is being sent away to a convent by her family and in the outside world she would not have the freedom to vote, study or work. Thus her relationships with men are in a sense her destiny, her chance to make her way in the world. That isn't the case for a young woman today, which is why Manon's decision to leave Des Grieux is a lot less credible (and in this staging he looks relatively well-off and educated too). By then presenting her relationship with Geronte as obviously abusive and exploitative, it makes it even harder to understand why she's with him out of her own free will (and hence the accusations of misogyny directed at this staging). You describe a trap being laid by Geronte and Lescaut, and yes it is Geronte who reports her to the police, but again I was left wondering why these women are handcuffed and led off in Act Three whilst a man with a microphone is making comments and they are being filmed. It's obvious from the libretto that these women are being punished by the police, not by Geronte (and if this were some kind of undercover operation then why would there be a large crowd gathered, none of whom phone the police despite making several sympathetic comments about Manon's fate?). Perhaps Jonathon Kent did want to stage the last two acts as a dystopian nightmare, but unfortunately he is still stuck with the libretto Puccini worked with and there is nothing to indicate that in the text - so the staging suddenly moved from a basically familiar, money-orientated society to something incredibly alien, without any clear reason. In short, there is just too much friction between the the story Kent wanted to tell and the opera he was employed to stage - and that's a pity, because I'm all for updated stagings that allow us to see familiar stories in different ways, but I suspect this show will just put people off. Glad you enjoyed it, anyway!

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 3 July 2014 at 6:12pm

      Hi John,

      Hmm, all very interesting points.

      My understanding of the modern/realistic/non-naturalistic business was that there was enough to firmly place us Now, but that Kent was also free to take us into nightmarish extremes – a sort of down-the-rabbit-hole that became more extreme (less realistic) as the opera went on, in a way that (I found) matched the increasing sweep of the music. So rather than gritty realism, which I imagine would be difficult to achieve successfully in opera, Kent gave us a highly theatrical interpretation that drew on modern vernacular to intensify its argument. I don’t know if you saw Kent's 2011 production of Ibsen's Emperor and Galilean at the National Theatre, which to me took a somewhat similar approach (though with important differences). In that productions he made few gestures to, for example, modern warfare, but the production was decidedly and wonderfully OTT, almost self-indulgently so. I thought it worked brilliantly for the heightened qualities of Ibsen's writing and the extraordinary scope of the play, just as I found Kent’s take on Manon Lescaut enhanced opera's innately non-realistic qualities and Puccini's epic sense of tragedy.

      As to Manon’s motivation – well, Puccini tells us nothing about Manon's time with Des Grieux. Perhaps it was lovely but perhaps Manon was always wondering what it would have been like if she'd gone with Geronte instead (I was very taken with Jonas Kaufmann's suggestion that it was only in Act IV that Manon truly loves Des Grieux for the first time). Manon makes what we'd probably all agree is a terrible decision to leave Des Grieux for Geronte – but people do make terrible decisions, especially when they have no guidance from anyone. Once she's made her decision, it proves to be very difficult to go back on it – as we see in Geronte’s reaction when he discovers her with Des Grieux. This is how I understood the segue into Act II.

      With their lack of recognizable uniforms I didn’t see Geronte’s guards as the police but as hired hands; their associates are the filmmakers in Act III. I apologize for invoking something that causes true harm here, but from what we hear of the modern slave trade I didn’t feel my credulity stretched by the idea of an underground organization involving apparently ordinary people entirely unmonitored by police forces. So for me everyone in Act III was complicit in an illicit organization, in different ways – whether the Lamplighter/Camerman for whom it’s just a job, or the actual audience, who are maybe customers or maybe actors, and the implied video audience, who are probably the real driving force behind the show. Who knows what these people want – perhaps it’s just titillation. But you know it isn’t good, and for me this helped build a sense of dread and horror that supported and intensified Puccini’s music.

      Kent’s theatrical gestures in this act are certainly a lot looser and less naturalistic than in the previous two. I understood the talk-show format as a way of sewing the seed in the audience’s mind of a way we could equate this modern form of entertainment with the entertainment derived from seeing a parade of starving criminals or an execution – but I think there are a lot of ideas in this act that probably mean different things to different people. For me it was an ideal preparation for the sense of extreme disaster in Act IV – but I realize this might just be me! And perhaps Kent intended something entirely different.

      Lastly (I promise!), I think there’s a chance that the discussion this production has precipitated might in fact encourage people to find out more and to look further – but who knows. We’ll have to wait and see.

      All best,

  3. Sam Goodyear responded on 2 July 2014 at 10:04am Reply

    I basically agree with everything written in this article, and I remain convinced that Kent's production is excellent. It's supposed to be ugly at times - irrespective of anything else I fail to see why anyone thinks opera must always be 'pretty'. Most Puccini has unpleasantness in it that a lot of audiences wish to ignore in favour of big tunes - the music often doesn't fit the text. Vogliatemi beni from Butterfly is astonishingly beautiful music, but we all know Pinkerton is taking advantage of her in a despicable way and so a conflicted, uncomfortable feeling from the audience should be expected. But of course most people don't want to feel like this and Kent's Manon Lescaut forces people to confront the conflicts in Puccini. I've said before, people I respect did not find the production as powerful as I did and there is always room for disagreement, but I think some of the reactions on here have simply demonstrated that many people don't want to have to think when attending performances.

    • John responded on 2 July 2014 at 11:05am

      You raise an interesting point when you say the music doesn't always for the text. I personally disagree about the Butterfly love duet - Pinkerton's decision to marry her on a short contract is very uncomfortable by modern standards but what he does is not exceptional for his time, and I think he does become genuinely enraptured during the duet, it just doesn't last - but part of the problem here is surely different cultural values? Accusations of misogyny have been thrown at Puccini for years and Manon Lescaut arguably fits the bill here too, with its focus on a woman who suffers for transgressing societal norms and who acknowledges her errors. The music of act two in particular I find characterises the superficial gentility and beauty of her new life, not its emptiness, so the issue perhaps is just that we can't glamorous her choice in the way a late nineteenth century audience could?

  4. Sam Goodyear responded on 2 July 2014 at 10:11am Reply

    I would disagree with examples of Puccini 'heroines' above though. If anyone is the heroine in Turandot it's surely Liu, I think Turandot is basically the villain and acts in an appalling way throughout, happy to break promises and tirture innocent people. But again, this makes the Turandot/Calaf happy ending something that should give conflicted feelings...

  5. Eric Firkins responded on 2 July 2014 at 12:48pm Reply

    A brave production makes more sense of the libretto. Manon fecklessness in being allowed to be with someone that she does not love is contrasted more starkly with her desire to know about Des Grieux in this setting. I found this production thought provoking but in Scenes 1 and 3 there were times when too much was happening on stage. This detracted from the music which it must not do.

  6. Sally responded on 2 July 2014 at 5:02pm Reply

    So far, not bad. I quite admired Act 2 - turning the dance class into a soft-porn session was inspired. But PLEASE will someone explain Act 3? "Manon will not go to America" - I doubt if they would have her in the time context of this setting, so where is she going, and why? Is it some kind of ultimately awful "reality" show? Why has the Ship's Captain turned into the comic from "Hi Di Hi"? If she can get out to talk to Des Grieux why don't they just run off together into the darkness? Act 3 makes absolutely no sense in it's current form. And who decided to set Act 4 so high above the stage that a large number of the side seats were left totally unsighted? That is just unacceptable, especially as no price reductions were offered. Updated productions can work, but this one leaves too many loose ends. Not well thought-out.

    • Jay responded on 3 July 2014 at 1:19pm

      Couldn't agree more. Act II didn't upset me (although I found the voyeurs and soft porn motif unpleasant) but the staging in Acts III and IV was woeful and distracted from the music and superb singing.

    • alice responded on 3 July 2014 at 1:26pm

      I totally agree here - after an interesting start, it lost its way in Act III and never recovered. People aren't deported any more and for this reason you cannot really update the setting.

      I can't get over how good the singing was though...

  7. naomi layish responded on 2 July 2014 at 6:26pm Reply

    Rachel Beaumont argues that she has no space to discuss the music. But she does have room for for a pretentious recital of a reading list which has nothing to do with either libretto or music

    John and others have pinpointed several
    moments when Kent's 'concept' clashes head on with the libretto. But is anyone listening to the score??

  8. Vivien responded on 4 July 2014 at 12:43am Reply

    I too was a little surprised by the term "non naturalistic" when this production is set in such a very modern setting, with the exception of the very pink boudoir which looked to me like something a good few years earlier.
    The score is absolutely wonderful, but also it is within what was permissible in Puccini's day. Now it is allowed to put much more suggestive scenes on stage, and that fits with what is going on in this opera.

    Manon seems to me to be a particularly malleable and naive young girl. She seems to accept without question that she will go to a convent, and that was still clear in her first meeting with Des Grieux. I think that her naiveté still shows in the boudoir scene, except that she has now become dazzled with the jewellery and what she sees as the benefits of such a life style, but she doesn't understand what powerful men like Geronte could do.

    Unless the story was to be changed completely, it's impossible to avoid the deportation scene, so we have to go along with that, but I didn't find it difficult to accept that the girls were arrested - today if they were working against their will they could still be taken away by police before being released from the criminals who pimped them.

    I did find that very high piece of road where Manon dies rather strange. Maybe it symbolised the end of the road (as indeed it was) but did it really have to be so high up? And I was amazed at the singers coping with the heights, including the spiral staircase at the start.

    In spite of these small niggles I still thought that the music was wonderful, beautifully played and sung, and loved the modern setting.

  9. Grahame Ainge responded on 4 July 2014 at 8:08am Reply

    I'm posting my comment again because your site told me I was posting too fast and should slow down.

    I’ve seen numerous productions of Manon Lescaut. Des Grieux and Manon have climbed in/out of huge statue heads, played with a little golden coach and other similar nonsense. I think I’ve been intellectually-challenged enough. Quite frankly it would be refreshing to see a traditional production in the spirit Puccini intended. If ROH isn’t careful it’ll be following ENO and Tony Pappano will find himself dusting off scores of a few musicals.

  10. Jake responded on 4 July 2014 at 3:01pm Reply

    I really enjoyed this production. It is a common theme in most of Puccini's operas that they depict the abuse (mental or physical, voluntary or involuntary) of women in the hands of men. This important aspect can easily get obscured by "traditional" productions. Here the director draws the parallel between what Puccini had in mind and the exploitation of women that can happen in modern times. I found this a fresh and clever take of the opera, and can well imagine that Puccini would have approved.

  11. anne woodward responded on 6 July 2014 at 9:21am Reply

    I thought this production was very touching as well as thought provoking. The suffering of a woman, even if she is immature, greedy for experiences and wealth and frivolous (who isn't?), is expressed in the music as well as her 'innocence' and we rightly feel for her and for the man, who adores her and is lost with her. But the 'ugliness' of the situation, the abuse, the utter materialism, of which Puccini was very aware, is there also, this time emphasized on stage! Bravo!

  12. Charles responded on 6 July 2014 at 9:57am Reply

    I am not a fan of Jonathan Kent's, but have to say that this staging was more logical than his Mikado for the ENO.
    In my view the updating places Manon's actions in a context that present-day audiences can relate to. Her actions were not those of a nice girl, but if she were simpering in a silk gown of the period, one would merely find it sweetly tragic - but it probably is always more pleasant to focus on the romance rather than the reality. Let's face it - she sold her body, as did Violetta in Traviata and Mimi in Boheme. This is not a judgment: it simply is what some people had to do (and still do today).
    Watching Manon perform soft porn may be disquieting, but it did, for me, underline the depths to which she had sunk.
    As for the reviewer who repeatedly refers to the music (in a rather arrogant manner, it seems to me) - it is not clear timme what she means, and it might be helpful to her to understand what distinguishes opera from concerts and plays.

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