It had been quite some time since I had last seen Manon Lescaut, Puccini’s early opera. Not since 2014 when leading man, Jonas Kaufmann, the Tom Jones of opera, topped the bill, playing an overly confident De Grieux at the Royal Opera House. Nevertheless I lapped up his ill-fated love affair with Latvian soprano, Kristine Opolais, singing Manon, and the extravagent sets.
Thinking back on it now, I question the lavish production. The operatic couple may have melded beautifully and the contemporary staging may have dazzled at first, but somehow it was distracting.
Puccini’s operas run on high octane emotion. To have an ostentatious set can be de trop!
Opera Holland Park minimalist set did its work with no frills: a bar, a boudoir, which morphed into a film set and finally the harbour with broken brick wall, where Manon and other fallen women are shipped off to New Orleans. New Orleans well – you just had to imagine it. You wouldn’t have known the places without checking the libretto. Sometimes this was a touch disorientating.
More important was the inspired casting and interaction between the lovers and other key members of the troupe.
Here, I believe, Opera Holland Park got it absolutely right. Elizabeth Llewellyn, a statuesque Manon, was good at fleshing out her heroine’s complex character. Kittenish and flirtatious at first, cavorting with abandon at a party on a Twister mat, she shows herself to be easily led and impressed by money. She has supposedly fallen for student De Grieux beforehand and yet it doesn’t stop her playful antics with her brother, Lescaut, before Geronte, the wealthy and aged pursuer of young women.
Paul Carey-Jones, as Lescaut, artfully demonstrated his slippery character in the way he disappeared and popped up unexpectedly on stage, first in the De Grieux, then in the Geronte camp. His baritone voice contained the right amount of menace and humour required for the role.
Meanwhile Stephen Richardson, singing Geronte, had the air of an eminent professor one minute, his elegant grey streaks and sharp suits giving him maximum allure, and mafioso, the next, in his dark shades. Wherever he was, he seemed to dominate the scene. His solid bass voice was memorable in the lower register but not allowed much space in this opera for tenors!
Peter Auty, playing the all important paramour, De Grieux was an interesting one. It must be hard for all principal singers to interpret well known roles and works. The audience expects so much of you and your leading lady, and Puccini certainly expected 100 per cent from his singers.
There is also the problem of the way we perceive the lover. De Grieux in the story of Manon is a poor student and madly in love. The audience sympathies could well lie with him. In this production, he is seen as not only grief-stricken but obsessive and childish; even unhinged! I’m thinking that that might be what Karolina Sofulak, director of Manon, had in mind.
Peter Auty captures the restlessness of the lover, his jerky body language on stage, manifests physically the inner turmoil Manon instils in him. His Italianate tenor voice is at times close to breaking point and his high notes seem to be wrested from a truly tortured soul. Important arias like ‘Guardate, pazzo son’ (Have a care – I’m driven to madness’) when he persuades the captain of the ship, to take him on board to join Manon, are truly moving.
Placed before the more poised Manon, whose strangled emotion only really comes through in the final act, De Grieux comes across as a psychological mess.
Llewellyn’s soprano voice was sophisticated, rich with all the necessary fragility in all the right moments. In the final act for example, when De Grieux has left her momentarily to seek help, she crumbles as the lights suddenly illuminate the cinema posters on the wall where a ‘Manon’ tops the bill . She rips them to shreds, no longer able to contemplate her young, beautiful former self or is it her replacement? ‘Now I beg for the grave.’ ‘My love help me.’
There was some consternation in the audience after the final scene as the lovers ended up far apart from each other, Manon standing beneath a flickering street lamp and De Grieux many metres away in despair. The ladies in question seated in front of me, might have seen Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais in the Convent Garden Opera version, virtually joined at the hip, lying on the edge of a truncated flyover (you had to be there!).
There is method to Karolina Sofulak’s vision. This quirk at the end emphasises Manon’s complete isolation. When Manon sings ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata,’ she really is, even when her lover returns from his vain search for help.
Highly recommended as Elisabeth Llewellyn is in fine voice.
Manon Lescaut, Opera Holland Pk runs for four more performances : Tues 18th June, Thurs 20th June, Saturday 22nd June and Wednesday 26th June.