Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Director: Karolina Sofulak
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
The witty, flighty, engaging music from the start of Puccini’s years of fame is not enough to bring flat rendering of Manon Lescaut into 3D. The main cast sing well, Elizabeth Llewellyn in the titular role especially, but in a production filled with contradiction and compromise there’s much to be desired.
The story follows young Manon from the day before she’s supposed to enter a convent on her father’s wishes. She arrives at a bar with her brother and his friend, the treasurer-general Geronte. There she meets Des Grieux, a poet/student and love blossoms almost immediately. Conflict arises when it’s clear the rich Geront wants her for himself, leading to a struggle between riches and love, pride and disgrace, devotion and disdain as she experiences what it’s like to be caught between men’s machinations.
There’s clear potential here – it’s been seen in many productions over the 130 years since the opera was written, or the 290 since the original novel appeared. So an update is natural – this time to some mid-20th-century setting. However, this updated production also brings a breakdown in the links between the lyrics, plot, music and direction. The love story is sexless, nice music without corresponding excitement. The score soars with passion, the performers stand still, or maybe gesticulate wanly. There’s no reason given at all for one of the main plot points – why, in the 1960s, would a previously healthy woman who has had a rough time in love just literally die on the street (in the original she’s deported with other courtesans to Louisiana – not really appropriate in this era)?
Overall there’s a real lack of dynamism in the production, the physical, urgent language in the lyrics being rendered almost theoretical – the passionate lovers barely make eye contact. At their reconciliation after being torn apart they prefer to stand singing “hold me close” whilst 5 metres from each other and declaiming direct to the audience. This happens again in a final (tenderly sung) scene where Manon magically tells Des Grieux she “feels your hot tears bathe my face” at a 10-metre distance. Making use of the park’s broad stage should mean a focal point takes the attention, not splitting it to make everyone feel lonely. Spreading across the stage, singing well – it could have worked nicely as a concert performance.
Rail thin characters lurk throughout. The most engaging is Manon’s brother (sung by Paul Carey Jones who brings some fun and mischief to proceedings though hams it up at times) who at least is honest about his selfishness and scheming. Des Grieux, Geronte, Manon herself are all either at one extreme or another – love-struck mooncalf, cartoon villain, needy and greedy supposed ingénue – without much complexity.
The Opera Holland Park Chorus provides a true highlight with the All’armi! All’armi! group denunciation of Manon and her fellow fallen women – though the scene itself takes a while to understand. And Peter Robinson’s baton brings some real sweetness from the City of London Sinfonia. Between the strange setting, the emotional blankness, the unexplained (and inexplicable) plot points and the existing issues with the libretto not telling the full story – it’s not a great start to the summer season in the park. Three other main productions are lined up, let’s hope they fare better.
Runs until 26 June 2019 | Image: Robert Workman