Hardly a Good Night for Puccini or WNO’s Reputation

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Giacomo Puccini (1858-1925),  Manon Lescaut (1893): (Sung in Italian with subtitles in English and Welsh.) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Lothar Koenigs (conductor), Venue Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno. 2.4.2014.

Manon Lescaut: Chiara Taigi
Des Grieux: Geraint Dodd
Lescaut: David Kempster
Geronte di Ravoir / Naval Captain: Stephen Richardson
Edmondo: Simon Crosby Buttle
Innkeeper: Laurence Cole
Dancing Master/Lamplighter: Huw Llywelyn.
Sergeant: Martin Lloyd.
Mr Eye: Tomasz Wygoda
Actors: Justyna Białowas, Katarzyna Hołtra, Joanna Jeffries

Production: Director: Marius Treliński
Set Designer: Boris Kudlička
Costume Designer: Magdalena Musial
Choreographer: Tomasz Wygoda

If, as I suggest, the production of La Traviata seen the previous evening is a banker for revivability for some time to come, this was the antithesis. As I noted in the review of that performance, it was preceded by an appeal from the Artistic Director for donations to assist WNO’s. work, every pound given being matched by a generous commercial company. Any such company talking among the audience who had been subjected to this production would have hardly worried about what the bill would be. Before attempting to describe this ill conceived staging and production, I had better write something about what Puccini’s Manon Lescaut is actually about, as any audience seeing this production would have to depend on the titles to get any idea as to what was supposed to be happening. That presents a problem, as a weakness in Puccini’s score means that quite a lot happens between the acts.

Puccini’s first two operas, Le villi premiered on 31st May 1884, and Edgar at La Scala on April 21st 1889, were poorly received to the extent that his publisher, Ricordi, considered dropping him from their roster. Puccini, having enticed Elvira Gemignani from her husband, had Elvira and her two children to support and considered joining his brother in South America. But the latter’s reply to his letter promised little and he abandoned the plan and turned his thoughts to a new operatic project. Giulio Ricordi stuck by him and made various suggestions for subjects that Puccini turned down before settling on the subject of Manon based on the Abbé Prévost’s novel L’histoire de Chevalier De Grieux et de Manon Lescaut.

There was much trouble with librettists, a Puccini habit, with the result that none of the six involved in it would have his name associated with it. As a result at the premiere the press presumed the composer had written it himself! Given such a tortured gestation, a circumspect Ricordi, aware that La Scala was to premiere Verdi’s last opera shortly after the scheduled premiere of Manon Lescaut, and keen to avoid any further failure for Puccini at that theatre, presented the work in Turin. Despite last minute fears the work was a resounding success, the applause began with the brief tenor aria Tra voi, belle in act 1 when Puccini had to appear on stage to acknowledge the applause. At the end of the performance the composer and cast took thirty curtain calls. Although choosing the story for this work had been an agony for the composer, it set him on a secure financial and artistic future.

Manon Lescaut consists of four distinctly separate tableaux. In the story, Manon, is a young , beautiful, but rather fickle, girl being taken to a convent by her brother on her father’s orders. At an stopover at an inn on the road to Paris she is fancied by an older Parisian gallant who wishes to take her away,. She in fact absconds with Des Grieux, a young handsome student (act.1). She is not yet a fallen woman, but, with a brother willing to pimp her towards Lescaut, a moneyed suitor, that is how she ends up in Paris, well and truly fallen and kept in luxury but still in love with her young suitor. She intends to leave the luxury with her impecunious young lover taking as much a possible of her jewels. Lescaut denounces her as a prostitute (Act 2), and Act Three sees her at Le Havre, waiting to be deported as a prostitute, with Des Grieux and her brother tryingto save her deportation. They fail and her young beau  joins her on the ship. In Act Four the couple are alone in the desert in Louisiana where she dies of thirst as desperately goes in search of water. Musical unity comes to the story with Puccini’s outpouring of melody and arias for the principals, which starts from the opening of the opera and continues to the end. Anybody knowing La Boheme, Tosca or Madama Butterfly would easily recognise the composer’s work. Several of the individual arias are regular pieces in concerts and on recital discs and are a gift for accomplished singers as are the duets trios and ensembles.

In this perverse production Manon is a fallen woman from the beginning, a scarlet-coated hooker plying her trade in dark glasses whilst propping up a wall and smoking. That is only one of the contradictions of the production. The set was initially an airport lounge and later a railway station, a large digital clock having little relevance I could determine. The back wall of translucent plastic panes was used for vague shapes of airplanes or trains interspersed with glaring flashing bright lights having little relevance, although causing some in the audience to have another reason to cover their eyes. Is it not time that stage directors wondered why the BBC gives a warning about flash photography, when applicable, in its news programs?  They do not do it for fun, such lights can cause psychological disturbances including convulsions. It perhaps needs a lawsuit to bring it home!  A train, accompanied by sound effects, achieved the journey from the unrecognisable Le Havre to the equally unrecognizable last act venue in America.

Needless to say the costumes were updated. Costume for Manon and other less relevant ladies, might be a misnomer. Director Marius Treliński seems to have a ladies bra and pants plus suspender fetishi syndrome, a unifying concept to be evident in the last of this trilogy, also his work. I might also add evidence for doppelgangers, doubles, and even triples.

On the singing front there was an initial disappointment for the travelling Gwyn Hughes Jones fan club from Anglesey when he was indisposed, being replaces by Geraint Dodd. Hughes Jones is not one of nature’s natural actors, but his singing is always in tune and ample in volume and variety of tonal expression. His corpulent successor started badly, eventually improving vocally if his acting didn’t. As Manon, Chiara Taigi’s warm tones and good vocal expression and characterization were only marred by some strain at the top of the voice. Her Act fFour Sola, perduta, abbandonata was welcome relief from the visual perversions inflicted on Puccini’s opera in this staging. David Kempster seemed to enjoy his cigarettes and was an imposing physical figure; Stephen Richardson less so. In the pit Lothar Koenigs allowed volume to outweigh Puccinian melody at times.

This production is hardly one likely to become a company banker, or I hope not.  This is a view shared and expressed by many at the following day’s pre-performance talk for Boulevard Solitude – much to the presenter’s embarrassment! This reflected the comments in the interval of the actual performance. Putting on a prodcuction like this is no way to solicit financial support for the company’s work.


Robert J Farr


The Cardiff performance of this opera has also been reviewed here on this website.

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