Elizabeth Llewellyn In Fine Voice in Opera Holland Park’s ‘Manon Lescaut’.

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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.

TT_Ssv80Meanwhile 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. 

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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.’ 

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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.

KH

Soprano Romaniw Sparkles in Miller’s Revival of La Bohème at ENO

Jonathan Miller was one of the reasons I started to take notice of opera in my early twenties. On camera, Miller spoke impressively of his aims to change opera for the better. Inventor of the time-shift opera, he was bent on creating better, more authentic drama. Out went the kitschy costumes, bad acting and antiquated sets so often associated with the opera genre.

In the 1980s Miller’s cinematic staging drew new audiences and his innovative stage direction breathed new life into iconic opera characters. People wanted to be entertained as well as hear the greats sing but predictably some opera stars were reluctant to change and refused to take orders from Miller. After many successes and a few run-ins with management and stars, Miller announced his departure in 2004, aged 74. Five years later however he was back staging La Bohème for ENO in 2009. His production was repeated a year later and in 2013, with Natasha Metherell in charge of the revival’s direction, the production was deemed flawless on every level by opera critics.

As the curtain went up on the opening night of the fourth revival of Miller’s ‘La Bohème’, I sighed with pleasure as I took in the 1930s artist studio with its high, narrow windows, lit to perfection. Rodolfo and Marcello working at the window in the dwindling light, painted the perfect picture of Bohemian Paris. Marcello, artist, had been stripped of his beret and smock and his thumb was not pointed at an easel. No easel in sight. Miller had spirited away all the embarrassing clichés of previous 19th century-inspired productions.

La boheme - Puccini - English National Opera - 26th November 2018  Conductor - Alexander Joel Director - Jonathan Miller Designer - Isabella Bywater  Mimi - Natalya Romaniw Rudolf - Jonathan Tetelman Marcello - Nicholas Lester Benoit/Alcindoro - Simon But
Nicholas Lester, Bozidar Smiljanic, Simon Butteriss, Jonathan Tetelman (photo by Robert Workman)

The scene with Rodolfo and Marcello and fellow bohemians gently ribbing each other and jokingly bemoaning their fate, was authentic and charming. Comedic moments supplied by landlord, Benoît, were a joy. Simon Butteriss in the role was so close to Leonard Rossiter’s character in the sitcom Rising Damp. His boasts and gripes about the female race: “Skinny women are here to spite us“, elicited laughter from a row of girls seated behind me in the dress circle.

A more serious Jonathan Tetelman in the all important role of Rodolfo was making his European debut. His voice, though sensitive and sweet, especially in the upper register, came across as tight alongside Nicholas Lester, whose warm, more assured delivery was perfect for his Marcello role.

In the interval, my neighbours wondered whether Tetelman should have turned to face the audience more. True – the set may have been a little challenging for him. The Paris studio was set back on the stage and Lester and Tetelman were singing from an upper level. Their voices had to carry across the stage, over the orchestra pit, across to us in the dress circle.

That said, the friendship between Rodolfo and Marcello was artfully portrayed. Tetelman is potentially good in a romantic role too but with Natalya Romaniw’s soprano, who sang the part of Mimi, mostly to perfection, his voice was not put to full advantage. The all-important moving arias of Act One were however well executed by both singers.

Rodolfo’s and Mimi’s love is subsumed in the hustle and bustle of Act Two. The stage set was striking: a café, with mirrors down one wall, a row of apartment buildings and roof tops disappearing off into the distance to the right of the stage, giving it great depth and breath. This allowed the chorus room to move around in and for the military band to break through the crowd and march off to great fanfare.

If Act Two is all about lightness and movement, Act Three plunges the audience into an atmosphere of darkness, stillness and hell. Miller’s set does this so eloquently. Two prostitutes straight out of a Brassai photograph loiter for business outside a dimly lit bar. Mimi appears from a partially-lit alleyway looking pale and anxious. The quartet when it came, with Mimi and Rodolpho versus Musetta and Marcello, worked quite well, Mimi and Rodolpho’s poignant lyricism piercing through Musetta’s and Marcello’s bickering. Nadine Benjamin, fresh from ENO’s enormously successful Porgy and Bess, where she played the role of Clara, portrayed a rather pared down version of Musetta. She was not as confidently petulant as I would have liked. Her voice was at its best in the final act when she had given up on flirtatiousness and sung movingly around the dying Mimi.

The star of the evening was without a doubt Natalya Romaniw, who was singing the role of Mimi for the first time. Having already been impressed by footage of her singing in the role of Tatyana in Eugene Onegin at Garsington, I knew I would already be in for a treat with La Bohème. Something in that mournful timbre of hers just seizes your heart. Her portrayal of Mimi has still a way to go, but her voice lingers in your head days after you have heard her sing. A true star, Romaniw brings further magic to what is already an arresting production.

KH

La Boheme continues in repertory at ENO until 22 February 2019

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(Header image: Jonathan Tetelman and Natalya Romaniw)