Opera Reviews
23 April 2021
Untitled Document

A lacklustre Manon Lescaut

by Moore Parker
Puccini: Manon Lescaut
Investec Opera Holland Park
20 June 2019
Elizabeth Llewellyn (Manon Lescaut), Chorus

Investec Opera Holland Park opened its 2019 season with something of a gamble in entrusting Puccini’s first La Scala success to a young company newcomer, Karolina Sofulak - who won last year’s European Opera Directing Prize (together with designer, George Johnson-Leigh) with the concept which has here come to fruition. 
Updated to the second half of the 20th century, both sets and costumes remain a touch undefined, but succinctly condense the presentation within a basic structure on two levels to set the action predominantly in a nightclub owned by Geronte di Ravoir - while extending subsequently to a street scene for Manon and Des Grieux’s coda.

Considering the technical challenges of a venue such as this, the idea has its assets - and the concept is arguably credible. However - sadly - its potential remains much on the drawing board, with execution lacking direction and imagination - and with the various protagonists generally reminiscent of silent movie actors at their most melodramatic.

Not ideally pre-destined for Italian verismo, the evening’s leads were additionally plagued by delivery which was essentially un-Italianate in enunciation, as much as in style. 

Elizabeth Llewellyn seemed vocally somewhat constrained until finally warming into the part during her Act 2 reunion with Des Grieux - in what subsequently proved to become the musical and dramatic highlight of the evening. This Manon is no innocent maiden upon her entrance - revealing considerably more than a fine pair of ankles, and with a clear sense of what side her bread is buttered on. Naturally, there is no Le Havre harbour, nor a barren New Orleans for the finale, and so this Manon’s fate ends standing under an illuminated street lamppost - evidently bereft of all hope and faith.

Some roles in Italian opera can be described as “tolerant” - or even “forgiving” - but Puccini’s zealous writing for Des Grieux is compelling in its demands and insists upon a warm clarion timbre which extends and blossoms above the upper passaggio in order to triumph. Appearing ill-at-ease, both musically and dramatically, one here had the impression that Peter Auty's assets lie more in the direction of a Delius or Britten than in this particular Fach.

In Act 2 we see more than a hint that Manon’s brother, Lescaut (vocally solid, Paul Carey Jones), is personally enticed by her glitzy robes and high heels - and indeed, this quirky idea held (unfulfilled) potential which could have been further expanded to produce a more colourful and significant figure.

In all, Stephen Richardson’s Geronte di Ravoir was the most all-encompassing reading  - strong in personality, and appropriately opulent in tone.

Stephen Aviss' Edmondo (here a barman in Geronte’s établissement) impressed with a well-produced tenor and easy stage manner, while Ellie Edmonds’ madrigal Soloist, John Wood’s Dancing Master, Alistair Sutherland’s Innkeeper/Sergeant, and Mike Bradley’s Dancing Master nicely rounded-off the cast.  

The rather lackluster staging was further exasperated on this particular occasion (the 6th performance in the series) by unusually erratic activity in the pit, with Peter Robinson's conducting ranging from a frenetic opening which left chorus entries scrambling - through to lame tempi, and an undernourished orchestral bed wanting in passion and the ideal romantic sweep required to set the evening alight.

Text © Moore Parker
Photo © Ali Wright
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