Perhaps the budget cuts are really biting at the Royal Opera House. Anyone expecting the sort of detail Laurent Pelly brought to his now-classic production of La fille du régiment will be disappointed by his new Manon, as unveiled at Saturday's general rehearsal. Whether it looks elegantly minimal or half-finished is a matter of opinion - but those sets sure are spare, in contrast to the acres of cloth lavished on the lush period costumes.
A vein of compromise (never a friend to art) runs through the entire production. A single choreographed chorus number intrudes into the otherwise naturalistic. Some singers plump for the authentic declamatory opéra comique style, others focus on musical line. Some act as naturally as their abilities enable them, others resort to stock gestures. I'm all for valuing everybody's contribution, but there's a point at which a production needs to be directed, not merely managed.
On the plus side, nothing is particularly controversial or disruptive, so while it not might be revelatory (or even clear), I doubt if it will seriously disappoint anyone.
In any case, Anna Netrebko makes an enchanting Manon and distracts from any deficiencies in the production. With Peter Gelb in the rehearsal audience, she was on top form and seemingly in perfect health. Could this be the first ROH production she makes it through without cancelling?
She has wonderful chemistry with Vittorio Grigolo too. His voice lacks colours, and his acting is restricted to flinging his arms around and gasping, but he has charisma and stamina, and he sang strongly and accurately throughout. I can imagine few current tenors who'd make a better job of des Grieux - anyone who thinks he's just a crossover lightweight is seriously mistaken.
Manon doesn't exactly end the Royal Opera House's recent string of disappointing new productions, but at least it arrests the decline - and the musical performances (all terrific) should with luck compensate for the theatrical weaknesses.