United Kingdom Puccini, Manon Lescaut: Soloists, Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus master: Richard Harker), City of London Sinfonia, Peter Robinson (conductor). Holland Park, London, 4.6.2019 (MB)
Director – Karolina Sofulak (director)
Designs – George Johnson-Leigh (designs)
Lighting – Rory Beaton (lighting)
Choreography – Tim Claydon (choreography)
Manon Lescaut – Elizabeth Llewellyn
Lescaut – Paul Carey Jones
Des Grieux – Peter Auty
Geronte di Ravoir – Stephen Richardson
Edmondo – Stephen Aviss
Singer – Ellie Edmonds
Dancing Master – John Wood
Innkeeper, Sergeant of the Royal Archers – Alistair Sutherland
Backing Singers – Hannah Boxall, Susie Buckle, Lara Rebekah Harvey, Ayaka Tanimoto
Shadow Manons – Angelica Barroga, Isabella Martinez, Hanan Mugga
Manon Lescaut is a curious opera. Its protracted genesis and sometimes unsatisfactory dramaturgy seem ultimately to work against it, whatever the attempted solution. A Leipzig revival of its original, 1893 version suggested that reinstatement of the original first-act finale was certainly not the answer. I am yet to be convinced that it can be made to work, though I shall happily be proved wrong. Perhaps Puccini’s greatest devotees feel the same way I should about La finta semplice, Feuersnot, or Die Feen. The operatic repertoire is full of works, after all, whose potential has been incompletely realised; we do what we can with them and should often be the poorer without them. The gap between potential and realisation can even prove part of a work’s fascination, especially in a knowing production and performance.
Alas, Karolina Sofulak’s production, ambition notwithstanding, does not come across as engaging with quite enough of those apparently intractable problems – and a little too often seems unclear. The 1960s updating works well enough in theory and has its moments in practice too. A society preoccupied with style and with a strong tension between reaction and liberation has obvious parallels with the eighteenth-century world of the Abbé Prévost. Where Sofulak’s production does score is in trying to make something of the heroine. If only we had something of Manon and Des Grieux’s time in Paris, she might come across as more fleshed out. (Puccini continued to entertain such a possibility for a decade.) Instead, Sofulak offers us a nightclub singer and entertainer who attempts – I think – to take responsibility for her own career, to wrest its control from the lowlifes around her. The idea seems to me a good one; the problem lies, perhaps as with the work, in its partial, confusing realisation. There is nothing wrong with making an audience work, asking it to fill in certain aspects; not everything can be portrayed on stage or indeed in the pit. The clashes between ‘original’ and new setting, though, often seem arbitrary rather than productive. By the time one realises what is happening in the fourth act, that Manon is making her escape from this world, abandoning her lover too, one may have ceased to care. A keener sense of place, even if place explicitly not created, would have helped. One does not need to see Le Havre or the bizarre ‘desert’ outside New Orleans, but if much is to remain the same, either abstraction or knowing, purposive infidelity may need to come across more strongly. Perhaps, though, I was missing the point and might feel differently on a second viewing; it has happened before and will surely happen again.
That difficulty with caring or with otherwise feeling truly involved is part of the work’s problem, at least for many of us. Too often, I found myself wishing that this were Lulu or, somewhere in between, Boulevard Solitude. Perhaps, though, that did credit to much of the musical performance. If, in my heart of hearts, I might prefer a few more strings for Puccini, I could hardly fault the City of London Sinfonia under Peter Robinson, and do not wish to try. There were a few moments when pit and stage fell out of sync in the first act, but that can happen in the finest of houses. More to the point, Robinson and his players pointed up nicely the character of each act, permitting one’s ears to draw all manner of connections between Puccini’s roots, his future, and his influence and affinities. Wagner loomed increasingly large, but so did devices Puccini would adopt more successfully in subsequent works, as well as sounds one might have thought stolen from Debussy, Stravinsky, even Poulenc – save for the fact that, if anything, it must have been the other way around.
Elizabeth Llewellyn unquestionably did what she could to have one care about Manon and her plight. If the character remains unsatisfactory, that is in no way to be attributed to Llewellyn, whose typically intelligent, sympathetic performance rose far above the vocal difficulties recent laryngitis occasionally revealed. Paul Carey Jones and Stephen Richardson brought similar depth to their roles as Lescaut and Geronte respectively, again supplying as much implied context as anyone could reasonably ask. If Peter Auty’s performance as Des Grieux proved somewhat generalised and gestural, there could be no doubting his enthusiasm. The Holland Park Chorus combined such enthusiasm with greater precision – vocal and staged; so too did other members of the cast, Stephen Aviss and Alastair Sutherland making a particular favourable impression.