Massenet - Manon

ONP Bastille, Tuesday January 10 2012

Conductor: Evelino Pido. Production: Coline Serreau. Sets: Jean-Marc Stehlé and Antoine Fontaine. Costumes: Elsa Pavanel. Manon: Natalie Dessay. Le Chevalier des Grieux: Giuseppe Filianoti. Lescaut: Franck Ferrari. Le Comte des Grieux: Paul Gay. Guillot de Morfontaine: Luca Lombardo. De Brétigny: André Heyboer. Poussette: Olivia Doray. Javotte: Carol Garcia. Rosette: Alisa Kolosova. L’Hôtelier: Christian Tréguier. Deux Gardes: Alexandre Duhamel, Ugo Rabec.

Manon massacred at Bastille.” “Unfortunately, this new Paris production is no break with (Joël’s) form: under the directorship of Nicolas Joel the house on the Seine seems more and more to be  bidding farewell to living, advanced music theatre.” “The year has got off to a bad start at the Paris Opera: this Manon (…) is indeed a total failure and was greeted with copious booing.” “This Manon, the worst production we have seen in a long time, is a disgrace to the Paris Opera.” “A hotchpotch of ideas that freely mixes eras and costumes, an incoherent bid for the universal message of Manon’s story that looks like intellectual laziness.” “Yet another turkey.” “Another shipwreck at the Paris Opera. Following a calamitous Faust, a Forza del destino simply too… feeble, there’s no risk that this Manon will set back on course a season that has gone adrift. The fault, above all, of Coline Serreau, creator of a spectacle of gobsmacking incoherence and vacuity.”

If anyone reads my write-ups, they may recall that after Forza I wrote: “I realised last night that I’d miscounted: the singing in Werther so eclipsed the production that I forgot how dire it was. In other words, Faust made four stinkers, not three; and Forza makes five." So Manon makes six: Joël continues to churn out duds like apparitions in Macbeth. Who would have thought the old man to have had so much dud in him? Surely after the booing, then these unusually unanimous reviews, he’s starting to get the message?

I quite enjoyed, though the Austrian ambassador didn't, Coline Serreau's Fledermaus production with prison uniforms from the concentration camps and ballets forming swastikas. I liked her Barbiere less, though it's been quite a popular hit. In both, ideas were raised but not worked through in any satisfactory way. Manon had me wondering, right from the opening scenes, what she was getting at; or more precisely, wondering if she was getting at anything at all, or simply had nothing much to say.

Hers will be remembered (until it’s forgotten) as the “punk” Manon. The ONP’s workshops pulled out the stops to produce, for Lescaut and his friends (the chorus), a wholly authentic-looking Berlin punk-Goth extravaganza of wildly spiked black-and-red wigs, leather jackets and trousers, torn jeans, chains, platform-soled, steel-reinforced biker boots, nose rings, armbands: you name it, they thought of it. That’s what will be remembered best. But in fact set and costume periods were mixed up madly.

In act one, in Grand Central Station – you couldn’t mistake the giant, round-headed windows or those shallow arches under the chunky balustrade – the revellers were kind-of-Paul-Poiret and, after dinner was thrown up to them from a supermaket trolley, Manon alighted from a 50s bus in a simple 18th century dress. She and Des Grieux left for Paris on Lescaux’ motor bike. I quite generously supposed that this anachronistic jumble couldn’t be so corny as to symbolise the eternal timelessness of Manon’s plight, but the professional critics seem to think that’s all there was to it. For the rest, it simply seemed as if Serreau was chucking random silly gags at the work to poke fun at it. There was no hint of an overarching vision.

In act two, the little house was lowered down and unfolded to show a grubby little room with a bed and (la petite) table, to which two pizzas were delivered in boxes. When Manon sang “Reine… par la beauté” a “Miss Arras” sash and large tiara made a brief appearance. And as the FT put it, to the point as usual under the header “Let’s Make Fun Of Massenet”: “The award for crass sabotage goes to the drop-down panel featuring a 1950s US housewife waving to friends in a car which triggers audience laughs just as Des Grieux tiptoes to the end of ‘En fermant les yeux’."

Act three got weirder. We were in a “Grand Palais” sort of greenhouse with monstrous columns of tropical plants. Manon was now dressed as Madonna; Lescaut serenaded three muscular, bearded men in topless, leather-corseted crinolines; during her big number, our heroine was helped into Vogue-ing poses by more muscular men, this time in leather-corseted bondage with their mouths taped over. The “élégantes” were a crazed, jerky fashion parade in black and white on platform shoes; the girls also had their mouths taped up. I think there was a message of some kind, in these scenes, about male and female sex objects but again, if so, it was corny. Then, unexpectedly, the tropical plants swivelled into church piers and the Grand Central windows were recycled into Saint Sulpice. Des Grieux wore an oddly low-cut cassock and a see-through tee-shirt. His father was costumed as Germont père. Why his groupies were Belle Époque beauties on roller skates is beyond me, but they raised a few laughs.

For the Hôtel Transylvanie scene, the station had been “baroquified” in a heavy, Brooklyn Academy of Music sort of way, the ruined staircase was made partly of scaffolding, the floor was littered with paper, the punks and Goths were joined by gangsters in pale suits, black shirts, white ties, trilbies and sunglasses, and Manon and Des Grieux were arrested by modern French riot police. The litter stayed in place, for the final scenes, in an otherwise barren landscape crossed by battle-scarred “guards” of all eras, from Roman centurion to mediaeval knight to GI. Manon died under a shower of snow.

The production seems to have been taken, by the critics, as mitigating circumstances for the singers. It has been rumoured that some, having signed up when the show was supposed to be by Laurent Pelly and, during rehearsals, seen the iceberg approaching, tried to wriggle out before the ship went down but were threatened by the ONP with legal action. Natalie Dessay was very uncharacteristically subdued during curtain calls, taking only one bow, stepping back and looking glum, a sign she wasn’t pleased with herself. She was on fragile form – “walking on eggs,” as a friend put it at the second interval. She managed a fine “Obéissons” and was as good as you might expect in “N’est-ce plus ma main?” but her voice “caught” frequently and she was, by the end in particular, often inaudible in the middle and lower range.

Filianoti was, on the contrary, very audible throughout, a valiant though Italianate and somewhat unsubtle Des Grieux. He was so generous most of the way through that it would be unfair to complain if he flagged toward the end; no doubt, if he doesn’t find some way to drop out of this disaster, he will learn to pace himself better as the run progresses. Ferrari hammed his way merrily through the part in his comic-strip punk gear and red-tipped porcupine hair. Gay was elegant but stretched at the top.

Pido seemed to be chivvying the orchestra along in a way I’d normally like (though the local critics didn’t), but on row 11 of the stalls, we were in one of the Bastille’s unpredictable blind (or deaf?) spots, so the sound was muffled. The score, by the way, was fairly drastically cut, so, what with all the gags on stage, the evening didn’t drag on too long and, after pretty vicious booing of the production team, we were out in time for a restorative steak and chips.

Parterre is discussing this show.


  1. Opéra Magazine's February issue covers this production, both in its editorial and in a review. Editorial: "One of the most phenomenal flops I have ever had the occasion to witness in this house." Review: "One person alone is responsible: Coline Serrault, whose production is a concentration of idiocy beyond anything that might have been imagined."


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