I think this is the third opera I've seen which Jonathan Kent directed. I loved his Die Frau ohne Schatten in Edinburgh, and didn't think much of his Flying Dutchman at the Coliseum. This production falls somewhere between the two. It's a bit hit and miss, but his direction of people was effective and the basic interpretation of the work seems to me justifiable. It's beyond me how anyone could object to Acts One and Four which are really very straightforward and mainly focused on the individual relationships. There was a small amount of action on a high balcony in Act 1 that I couldn't see very comfortably, but certainly not enough to seriously annoy – I had no issues with sightlines in the rest of the piece. I thought the blasted flyover of Act Four was a perfectly effective alternative to the barren desert of the libretto given the production seems to have an essentially present day setting. Acts Two and Three arguably present some issues. Kent has obviously decided to play up the sordid dimension of Manon's relationship with Geronte turning the Act Two musical interlude (a dull bit of Puccini if ever there was one) into a cheap highly sexualised nightclub dance act. A traditional approach would presumably play this scene as a straightforward party and possibly this change was what infuritated some audience members. I didn't find anything appealing about Manon in this scene, indeed it was a bit revolting, but let us be clear, those elements were already present in the character and the relationship as originally written. You may prefer to take a rosier view of this scene, but Kent is perfectly justified in not joining you. In Act Three again Kent plays up the sordid element of prostitution, and the “Naivete” poster and the manner of embarking for the New World are the least convincing elements of the production but, again, the material for this is there in the work.
The star of the evening, by a country mile, and not unexpectedly, is Jonas Kaufmann as Des Grieux. Kaufmann has the kind of muscular full tenor voice which this kind of role seems to me to require and which in practice it so seldom gets. I do think the evening is worth it just for the privilege of hearing Kaufmann sing. Unfortunately Kaufmann's excellence exposes the fact that Kristine Opolais (who I don't recall having previously heard) is just not in the same class. Opolais improves as the evening goes on and is at her best at full voice, but she just doesn't have the weight in the voice to really carry the role. In the softer passages she is sometimes inaudible, and elsewhere there were moments of strain. As Lescaut Christopher Maltman is in better voice than I have recently heard him but still didn't sound wholly authoritative. Maurizio Muraro is an effective Geronte.
In the pit I found Pappano's conducting a bit lacking in drive and drama in the first two acts, though this may be a consequence of the work. The chorus and the pit early on didn't seem to be fully in harmony either, an unusual occurrence in the House. After the interval things picked up considerably, though I thought bravoing Pappano and the orchestra for the Act Three prelude, albeit very well played, was excessive praise. The chorus were also back on form in Act Three.
All of which just leaves the work itself, which brings us back to where we came in. As I noted at the outset this performance did not alter my view that it is a second rank opera, and that it is perfectly comprehensible why it isn't staged very often. The more tightly focused final acts are musically enjoyable, but I wouldn't go much further than that. And perhaps it is this that really made me baffled by the scattered boos which greeted the production team at curtain call. Even if this were an infuriating production (and it simply baffles me how anyone could be infuritated by what I thought was a pretty innocuous evening) I really cannot see how this could ever be an opera to call up strong feelings. With two outstanding singers it's the sort of evening to enjoy some vocal pyrotechnics and the occasional powerful piece of orchestra writing like the Act Three prelude. With one star singer...well you get the idea. A show worth seeing to hear Kaufmann, certainly not one worth getting hot under the collar about.