Manon is Jules Massenet’s most popular opera, and along with Carmen and Faust, stands as one of French opera’s iconic centrepieces, with the theme of self-destruction at its core.
This production returns after two years to the Opéra Bastille, one of the main stages within the French opera scene. Originally set during the French Regency Era, director Vincent Huguet frees the storyline from historical features and places the narrative in the flamboyant Roaring 20s. The choice works – it jazzes up the production whilst preserving the social climate of the Regency Era whereby tradition was being threatened by a new force of modernity.
A striking Art Deco set (designed by Aurélie Maestre), instantly transports us to the vibrant 20s. Indeed, the set replicates reality well throughout the production, a highlight being the towering paintings of Delacroix dotting the walls of Saint-Sulpice in Act III, Scene II. Somber and pious, the atmosphere of this scene starkly contrasts the flamboyance of the previous acts, which shows the competence of Maestre to diffuse ambiance through her set designs.
The story is essentially that of self-destruction. Manon escapes her journey to a convent and throws herself into a passionate romance with Des Grieux. Her lust for both monetary and social wealth, however, steers her away from him, ultimately leading to her demise. Ailyn Pérez, in the title role, is brilliant in depicting every phase of Manon’s character. From her initial innocence in Act I to being a blissful lover in Act II, and eventually a fallen socialite sentenced to deportation, our eyes are stuck on Pérez as she portrays Manon’s fall from grace. Her voice resounds throughout the hall during the songs “I go everywhere” (“Je marche sur tous les chemins”), and “Obey when their voices are calling” (“Obéissons quand leur voix appelle”) in Act III, and both are most deserving of applaud. Atalla Ayan, playing Des Grieux alongside Pérez, was also vocally striking and the duo’s voices melt fluidly into each other. A highlight duet stands to be their admission of love in Saint-Sulpice, a moving moment after Manon’s relentless pursuit for Des Grieux’s reciprocated love. A notable mention must go to Rodolphe Briand for his portrayal of Guillot. His role as an aging rake was superbly convincing.
Amidst everything, Clémence Pernoud’s costume design bewitches the most. Whether it be the costumes during the feast day of the Cours-la-Reine; or the attire in the gaming salon at the Hôtel de Transylvanie, the designs emanate the wild freedom of the “Années Folles”. A female couple in black pants and a top hat reflects the era’s liberation of homosexuality. The utterly beautiful gowns of the graceful ladies in Act III make the stage an haute couture runway, and Pernoud succeeds in rendering French costumes as elite.
Jean-François Kessler’s choreography is, as with everything else, true to the era, and places us in the world of Charleston, Folies-Bergère, Joséphine Baker, and Suzy Solidor in 1920s Paris. Bertrand Couderc’s lighting mimics the darkening tone of the opera as the plot thickens and follows Manon’s road to self-destruction. Conductor James Gaffigan keeps good tempi throughout and leads the comfortable pace of the opéra comique.
A very French opera, composed and directed by the top French artists; what better way to indulge in true French sophisticated glamour than by escaping to Paris in the Roaring 20s?
- Composer: Jules Massenet (1842-1912)
- Libretto: Henri Meilhac, Philippe Gille
- Director: Vincent Huguet
- Conductor: James Gaffigan
- Photograph: ©Emilie Brouchon
- Cast includes Ailyn Pérez, Atalla Ayan, Andrzej Filończyk, Jean Teitgen, Rodolphe Briand
- Opéra Bastille in Paris
- Until 26th February 2022
- Running Time: 3 hours 50 minutes with 2 intervals