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Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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The final new production in Covent Garden’s season sees the much-anticipated house debut of Anna Netrebko as Massenet’s innocent turned courtesan, a role she has played to acclaim across continents in recent years. The Russian soprano certainly lives up to expectations; big and secure vocally, she dazzles in a performance that sees her revelling in the journey from a credible 16 year old to sweet lover and then seasoned mistress relishing a new-found life of wealth and male adoration.

Matching her in vocal size and passion is the Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo as des Grieux, shaking off his pop-tenor reputation in an impressive first appearance at the Royal Opera House.  He could take his foot off the pedal at times but he’s ardent and touching and the two stars’ scenes together are the highlights of an otherwise rocky evening.

More attention seems to have been paid to the frocks than the sets, with the first scene a sterile and empty village topped by toytown battlements, looking primed but not finished and in bad need of a lick of paint.  What designer Chantal Thomas does give us, with the simplest of means, is a completely different visual for each of the six scenes, although some work better than others.

If much of the score is operettaish, director Laurent Pelly reinforces the point by updating to around the time of the opera’s 1884 premiere, so the chorus in the Act 3 Cours-la-Reine shennanigans (one of the more striking scenes visually) start to resemble a Manet crowd scene.  Historical sticklers might blanch at the mention of the King at a time when France was established as a republic but it’ll be a minor jar for most and the updating from the original 18th Century setting works well enough.

Baritone William Shimell makes an interesting character of the caddish de Bretigny, flop-haired and slightly foppish, avoiding suaveness and sophistication as he hides behind the bluster of Russell Braun’s aggressive Lescaut.  Frustrated sugar-daddy Guillot de Morfontaine gets a lively comedy performance from Christopher Mortagne and Christof Fischesser, evoking Germont pere in his stern father figure of Le Comte des Grieux, is solid in support.

Pelly gives us multiple images of old men stalking young girls, countering the saccharine elements of the piece and adding an unsavoury taste to the end of Act 3 with a virtual gang rape of the imported ballet troupe.  Lust works both ways, with a pack of black-clad ladies in the church scene eyeing up the handsome young priest like hungry crows.

Simone Mihai, Louise Innes and Kai Ruutel add glamour to each of their appearances as the trio of floozies.

Great performances, an impassioned score (the tenor arias “En fermant les yeux” and “Ah! Fuyez, douce image” are particularly inspired) and some great playing by the ROH orchestra under Antonio Pappano ensured an ecstatic first night reaction, indicating this is another popular success for Pelly and his team. 

But not everything gels and a visual haphazardness reflects a work that is uneven and less successful dramatically than Puccini’s tighter version (and certainly than Verdi’s similarly-themed La traviata).  With almost an hour of intervals and three hours of music, it’s a lengthy evening but if you go primarily for the star performances, you won’t be disappointed.

The production will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 10 July at 6.00pm


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