Misconceived Approach to Manon Lescaut Can’t Hide its Musical Power Entirely

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, Manon Lescaut: (UK Production Premiere) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Lothar Koenigs (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 8.2.2014 (GPu)

Manon Lescaut: Chiara Taigi
Des Grieux: Gwyn Hughes Jones
Lescaut: David Kempster
Geronte di Ravoir / Naval Captain: Stephen richardson
Edmondo: Simon Crosby Buttle
Innkeeper: Laurence Cole
Singer: Monika Sawa
Dancing Master / Lamplighter: Huw Llywelyn
Sergeant: Martin Lloyd
Mr Eye: Tomasz Wygoda
Actors: Justyna Białowas, Katarzyna Hołtra, Joanna Jeffries

Director: Marius Treliński
Set Designer: Boris Kudlička
Costume Designer: Magdalena Musial
Choreographer: Tomasz Wygoda
Video Production Designer: Bartek Macias
Chorus master: Stephen Harris

Great (good?) operas have great stories to tell, the best of which stories have the archetypal power of myth. It is, therefore, a minimum requirement that any opera production should at least tell the story well. This one doesn’t. Puccini initially set out to write the libretto for his Manon himself, but early on in the process of composition he turned (on the advice of his publisher) to Ruggiero Leoncavallo for advice. The partnership didn’t last long, however. Soon the dramatist Marco Praga (who had never written a libretto was summoned (by Puccini) for assistance; he devised a four act structure which differs in important respects from the finished work, but it was agreed that Domenico Oliva should prepare the poetic text. Oliva found Puccini difficult to work with and he eventually withdrew from the project. At this point Luigi Illica took over prime responsibility for the libretto, subsequently being assisted by Giuseppe Giacosa. Out of this complicated gestation (many details of which are omitted in this brief account) there emerged a four act libretto in which the ‘myth’ is ‘told’ in four discrete episodes, each occupying one act. The audience, perhaps because many in Puccini’s audience could be expected to be familiar with the basic ‘myth’, are expected to fill in the gaps between these episodes themselves, though the text and music do generally provide clues to help the audience to do this.

Marius Treliński’s production, by removing all direct allusion to the libretto and by effectively contradicting many of the details and almost all of the moral and social assumptions on which the libretto is constructed made it extremely difficult, at times, to be sure what was going on. A number of audience members who had no previous knowledge of the opera told me afterward that they had frequently been ‘lost’ at the basic level of plot, during the evening. By setting the opera neither in the time of Prévost’s novel nor in Puccini’s own time, but rather in a sleazy modern ‘world’ the production distorted (or ignored) all the moral and social questions implicit in the original libretto. The Manon of Puccini’s opera is, when the work begins, a young and lively girl, given to flirtation and aware of her own burgeoning sexual power but not yet committed to a way of life, her choices yet to be made. Indeed, insofar as she is developed by Puccini and his ever-changing team of librettists it is as a woman making choices, more than a few of which she finds difficult and confusing, some of which she learns to regret.

At the beginning of Treliński’s production she is a somewhat clichéd figure of a prostitute, swathed in a scarlet plastic coat, wearing dark glasses and smoking as she hangs around in a bar. This is a Manon whose choices have, effectively, already been made. All avenues of real character growth or emotional complexity were foreclosed for Chiara Taigi, and I had the feeling that she felt confined by the production in interpreting the role (both vocally and in ‘acting’ terms). The coherent social world of the original libretto was not replaced by an equivalent one that really made sense. In the libretto, Des Grieux is one of a group of students (he is a student of theology) when he first sets eyes on Manon outside a coaching inn in Amiens. In this production these events had been transposed to what was, I think, a railway station attached to an airport. One of the students, Edmondo, in the original libretto had become a man sweeping up the litter in the station and Des Grieux appeared to be one of the many be-suited businessmen passing through the station. The idea, important in the original libretto, that Manon and Des Grieux are, if not exactly innocents, young people vulnerable to the manipulation of cynical older figures such as Lescaut and Geronte was effectively lost almost before the first notes were sung. It would be tedious to go into detail after detail; but I seem to have been far from alone in finding that in almost every way Treliński’s production obfuscated rather than illuminated, and created a world, some of which admittedly had its own theatrical power, which was uncomfortably at odds with both text and music of Puccini’s opera.

This production is one of three in a WNO season under the banner of ‘Fallen Women’; the second is La Traviata and the third Hans Werner Henze’s take on the Manon story, Boulevard Solitude. The production team responsible for this Manon Lescaut are also in charge of the Henze and I strongly suspect that when that opens on February 26th we shall find ourselves looking at exactly the same set – and Henze’s work does, indeed, open in a railway station. Themed seasons are a fine idea and it is especially interesting idea that we should see, in quick succession more than one version of the same operatic story. When, earlier,  I called the best operatic stories ‘myths’ I had in mind not just their archetypal qualities but the fact that like other forms of mythical narrative they lend themselves to (and indeed seem to demand) constant retellings as they are seen afresh in different social and historical contexts. The myth of Manon (though the basic pattern might be traced back much further) essentially begins with the Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel, L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. Apart from the works by Puccini and Henze featuring in this current WNO season, other operatic retellings of the myth include Auber’s Manon Lescaut (1856), Richard Kleinmichel’s Manon of 1883 and Massenet’s two treatments of the story, Manon of 1884 and Le Portrait de Manon (1894). There is a rich and inviting field here, but real comparison is surely not best served by what seems to have happened here (one can’t be sure until seeing the production of Boulevard Solitude), when the earlier of the two works (Puccini’s) appears to have been viewed almost entirely through the lens provided by the later work (by Henze). The result is a process of homogenisation which fails to respect the distinct character of Puccini’s opera.

In amongst, beneath, beyond and despite, this disappointing and frustrating production  (one effective touch, it should be said, was the introduction of a ‘second Manon dressed identically with the main character in the closing moments of the opera, which seemed to speak more of the cyclic eternality of the character and the plot, than of the divisions in Manon’s character) there were, fortunately, some good things going on musically, though not uniformly so. The orchestra was on particularly good form, perhaps less constricted by the production than some of the singers appeared to be. As one might have expected given that the conductor, Lothar Koenigs, is a distinguished Wagnerian, there was a particular vivid responsiveness to some of the quasi-Wagnerian elements in Puccini’s writing, such as the love duet in Act II and the orchestral intermezzo which introduces Act III, both of which have an audible relationship with Wagner’s Tristan music.

Gwyn Hughes Jones may not be a very persuasive presence as an actor, but he has a genuinely Italianate manner in Puccini and there was much to enjoy in his vocal interpretation of Des Grieux’s arias and duets, sung as they were with open-hearted, but disciplined passion in a fashion often rather at odds with the prevailing idiom of the production (especially during the first two Acts, which employed an almost constant battery of flashing lights and fiercely bright video projections, when I sometimes found it most profitable to shut my eyes and simply listen). I found it hard to judge Chiara Taigi’s singing, her voice was sometimes too light and inclined to be a little edgy at the top end, but the whole language of the production so circumscribed the possibilities for the interpretation of Manon that I felt uneasy in judging her work on this one experience of it. Still, she moved well and persuasively.

David Kempster had some good moments as Lescaut without being able (being allowed?) to develop a coherent account of the character. Stephen Richardson’s Geronte di Ravoir was a product more of stage business than vocal quality or individual acting. WNO’s Chorus were, as ever, highly proficient and some of its members who were granted individual roles, such as Simon Crosby Buttle and Monika Sawa acquitted themselves well. But overall, one’s dominant sense was of at least two opportunities missed – an opportunity to do something like justice to the earliest of Puccini’s operas to be a real success (and opportunities to see the opera don’t arise too often) and an opportunity to present it in a manner which would make possible sensible and revealing comparisons with Boulevard Solitude and even La Traviata.

Glyn Pursglove