The life of Manon's literary creator, l'abbé Prévost, is ripe for its own operatic treatment. A licentious priest and sometime soldier who died by a pathologist's knife after waking during a premature post-mortem, his existence far outshines the predictable tale of amour fou upon which his reputation rests.
Yet it's easy to see why lyric sopranos are drawn to the title role in Massenet's version of the story. Less an operatic calling card than an all-singing CV, Manon morphs from ingénue to coquette to siren to heaven-bound heroine across its four-hour duration.
For the first home-soil revival of its much-travelled 2010 production, the Royal Opera has handed this diva's dream to Ermonela Jaho, who grabs it with... well, one hand at best. Having been left cold by the Albanian soprano's widely lauded turns as the doomed Violetta (in La traviata) and Suor Angelica (Il trittico), it is pleasing to report that she manages the tragic finale with aplomb, her engagement sufficiently convincing to win a loud ovation from an audience that had taken a good couple of acts to warm to her unusual timbre. Although secure in the upper register, Jaho's tone lacks freshness; she has a marked vibrato and despite her mezzo colouring there are no resounding low notes. These are useful qualities when you're dying in the street from exhaustion; less so when you're a dreamy 16-year-discovering the world for the first time.
Manon Lescaut, on whom Puccini also composed an opera (to be presented at Covent Garden later this year), becomes the object of wild infatuation by the Chevalier des Grieux, and Massenet composed their first encounter as a grand coup de foudre. That heady moment was missed by both Jaho and Matthew Polenzani, neither of whom managed more than a damp squib's-worth of instant attraction; but thereafter the American tenor went on to impress greatly, his mellifluous anguish in Act 3 brilliantly communicating the would-be priest's agonising choice between God and Manon.
The supporting cast is equally strong, with outstanding turns from Alastair Miles as des Grieux Senior, a lightly-permed William Shimell as de Brétigny and Christophe Mortagne as the ridiculous yet perfidious Guillot de Morfontaine. The latter's cortège of Pousette, Javotte and Rosette, Massenet's proto-Motown trio, is brightly sung by Simona Mihai, Rachel Kelly and Nadezhda Karyazina. As for the French conductor Emmanuel Villaume, he drew an assured, idiomatic account of the score from the Royal Opera's orchestra and chorus that felt both sprightly and right from first note to last.
Laurent Pelly's staging amid Chantal Thomas' striking angular designs is visually arresting, but, like his Robert le Diable, too self-aware for comfort. As a master of comedy (the Royal Opera's L'elisir d'amore and La Fille du régiment are both his) Pelly strains for laughs even when they are not appropriate. At the end of Act 2 des Grieux is despatched with a chucklesome pop from a Keystone cosh; during the third-act ballet the dancers are subjected to leering abuse by lechers in toppers. An indictment of antediluvian attitudes to women? Possibly; but then why make it funny?