sun 23/06/2024

Manon Lescaut, English Touring Opera review - a nightmare in too many ways | reviews, news & interviews

Manon Lescaut, English Touring Opera review - a nightmare in too many ways

Manon Lescaut, English Touring Opera review - a nightmare in too many ways

Grotesque staging sabotages Puccini's breakthrough tragedy

In livid colour: the cast of 'Manon Lescaut'All images by Richard Hubert Smith

Opera in Britain is currently cursed by funders, politicians and ideologues – of right and left – who heartily detest the form. Alas, some directors do their work for them with interpretations seemingly designed to undermine the very art they are employed to serve. English Touring Opera (rare beneficiaries of a recent boost to their public subsidy) have regularly excelled in the past. They will do so again.

Indeed, their new version of Puccini’s first mature success, Manon Lescaut, began its cross-country progress at Hackney Empire on Saturday with plenty of striking vocal moments – notably from Jenny Stafford in the title role and Gareth Dafydd Morris as her suitor Des Grieux – along with some zestful, punchy playing from the pit orchestra conducted by Gerry Cornelius.

However, it has be said that Jude Christian’s production seriously misfires. Often crass and crude, strewn with farcical, pointless bits of business and dressed in a repulsive palette of retina-blasting ugliness, it almost seems intended to make us hate not the heroine’s misogynistic persecutors but the work itself and its composer. Premiered in 1893, but based on Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel, the opera certainly shows the doomed, pliable Manon – first destined for the convent but then the plaything of the creepy “protector” Geronte and love-object of the adoring but conceited Des Grieux – as victim of a trade in women’s lives and souls that romantic idealists may pursue as much as pimps, priests or patriarchs. “Feminist” Manons have become standard procedure of late. Previous directors have shared Christian’s urge to bring the “ritual sacrifice” of a “misbehaving woman” centre-stage as the heroine, deported for immorality, dies in a parched colonial desert (improbably located by Prévost in “Louisiana”).The trouble here comes not from the ends, but the means. Laboured movements, gimmick-crammed sets, grotesque costumes and a cloth-eared English libretto (by the director): all detract from the principals’ noble efforts to give strength and even grandeur to Manon’s wavering, outgunned protest against the varieties of confinement imposed on her by family, law, taboo and even an “ideal” love.

Christian’s misbegotten conception of the opera’s first half as a “surreal nightmare” delivers a sort of cross between Hockney-era poolside California and the kind of panto the Hackney Empire itself might have mounted a century ago. This garish alienation does not focus but fatally blurs Manon’s thwarted bid to break her visible and invisible chains. From golden dogs to water coolers, odd props are laden with a portentous symbolic freight that generates clutter without much illumination. And how does Manon’s blue fright wig and hospital-bandage outfit (Jenny Stafford, pictured above) enhance her dignity? The psychedelic vulgarity turns into another oppressive force that drains the heroine, and her drama, of humanity.  “Make it stop. It’s like a nightmare,” someone sings. Not quite: but I have seldom seen a more ostentatiously brash set of stage tricks. Good singers deserve much better.

Christian’s cartoonish aesthetics (more than once I thought of The Simpsons rather than classic Commedia dell’Arte) load a heavy handicap onto the vocalists every time they struggle to make character and feeling sound as credible as Puccini’s supple, agile score demands. One example of intrusive incoherence: why turn the lecherous dotard Geronte, who ensnares Manon in a bling-filled boudoir, into a camp caricature in shocking pink and a comedy hat? (Edward Hawkins, pictured below with Jenny Stafford.) He needs to make our, and her, flesh creep, not mince and strut like some rouged refugee from a 1970s sitcom.Throughout, though with some respite in a more sober second half, these wilfully bizarre visuals cut across both music and drama. All credit, then, to the singers for wrenching so much poise and power from the thrift-shop catastrophe of this production’s look. Beset all round by kitsch, and by some lumpy choreography, both Stafford and Morris sounded pinched and thin at first. Notably, when the direction left them alone they began to bloom. By the time of the great second-act duet, as Stafford’s robust but never harsh soprano cut through swelling orchestration, we could hear not just the ardour but the doubt and inner conflict that each of this pair brings to their passion. Light, even fragile, at first, Morris grew in authority, lucidity and warmth.

As Manon’s devious brother Lescaut, more procurer than guardian, Aidan Edwards had swagger and assurance to burn. Edward Hawkins’s Geronte managed on occasions to sing his way bravely out of a trivial, demeaning concept for his role. As lead singer in the “madrigal” that Geronte composes for his human pet, mezzo Cicely Hé hinted at a voice to relish – though here, as often, the puerile animal-themed party hats of the serenaders meant that our eyes got in the way of our ears. Even the stirring, tender and well-played intermezzo that precedes act three (kudos to Cornelius) suffered from fussy onstage business to dilute its force. And those cheapskate carnival costumes made the dismaying dockside parade of so-called “minxes and sluts” prior to their expulsion less harrowing than it should have been. The chorus, however, rose well to the scene’s cruel fatality.In the couple’s final desert anguish (pictured above), we might have hoped that the blazing gold surrounds – an ironic reprise of the trashy glitz that seduced Manon – would be simple enough to let the singers do the work. But no: a ludicrous giant dog’s head looms distractingly over the action. Still, both the final duet and the outcast Manon’s searing soliloquy of farewell (to love’s delusions, and to life itself) left us with a proper respect for Stafford’s and Morris’s whole-hearted immersion in these roles. They gripped and moved, in spite of everything. Singing of such commitment proves that opera can survive not just its detractors, but its directors too.

Comments

I agree with every word of your review. I absolutely hated this stupid production.

Manon Lescault is a Puccini opera that I was unfamiliar with.  This production makes me feel I ought to have left it that way.

an appalling production. The general director of ETO and The director of the Opera insulted their excellent cast, the orchestra and their audience. Robin Norton Hale  should resign immediately, and never again should Jude Christian be allowed to direct an ETO opera

We were not the only ones to leave at the interval unable to take any more.  

I went to the pre-show talk of Manon Lescaut where the directorJude Christian spoke about her work for this production and I listened with foreboding. But nothing prepared  me for such an unattractive and utterly incomprehensible production of this beautiful opera.  Where were the directors of this company when this production was being planned?

I have seen many unsatisfactory productions in my 55 years of Opera listening, but this one was undoubtedly the worst...an ill- conceived mismatch between the composer's operatic intentions and the producer's farcical vision and poor script. The singers should be praised for their valiant efforts to do justice to the music in such circumstances. Best viewed with your eyes shut and listening solely to some of the magical moments of music in the Opera.

Having watched this last night Sheffield I couldn't agree more with the comments. The audience doesn't need the directors crass view forced on us in such a puerile way. The direction and setting should work with music not against it. The first half was really quite bizarre and disconcerting and I felt very sorry for the bass who couldn't have seduced anyone in that hat! But the singing and the orchestra were absolutely wonderful. Try another director!

My heart sank as soon as the curtains opened on this garish and silly spectacle. What a relief to go home when the interval came. Good singing could not stop this ludicrous production being entirely uninvolving. It would work much better on radio.

I went to the performance at Snape Maltings on 23 March. In a rough nutshell I loved everything I heard and hated everything I saw. Splendid singing, spirited playing, sensitive conducting - as is the norm with ETO. The production and direction bore little resemblance to, or understanding of, Puccini or Prevost and has already been rightly slated. To the future - ETO is strong enough to survive this. Experimentation, success and failure are integral to any serious artistic enterprise and ETO have rarely got it wrong to such an extent.  Please don't abandon them; go next time with another friend and see what another director can do!
Gareth Jones

  I do feel directors need to bear in mind that though they feel the necessity to do something new and radical, for most of the audience this is probably the only chance they will get to see this opera and they would rather see what Puccini actually meant them to see.  The empty seats after the interval and members of the audience wearing blindfolds might just give them a clue.  The problem is that the director wanted to show the exploitation of women and the double standards in attitudes to morals for men and women.  But the original opera does that brilliantly, in this surreal dream version the impact of the reality of the predicament of the characters is lost.  Manon should be a rebellious girl being sent to a convent and getting sold by her brother, here she just comes across as some random woman.  The whole passion of the second act is lost because the characters aren’t real.  In Act III the whole horror of Manon being transported to a brothel in Louisiana is lost because we don’t see her broken and accompanied by whores and prostitutes.  And in the end rather than dying of thirst in the desert she looks upset because the water cooler has run out.  Having said all this the singing and the orchestra were excellent.  Just a pity I forgot my blindfold.

Seen in Oxford 9th April.  I agree entirely with your review.  Everything detracted from the superb music and congratulaions to the two principal singers who managed their roles wonderfully despite this awful production. 

I saw this today at The Curve, why any theatre would stage such a ludicrous production as this is beyond me. Everything about the opera was lost, it made no sense whatsoever and should be pulled from appearing at any other venue. Put simply it was an utter disgrace!

Saw this wonderful opera last night in Cheltenham. What a treat, unacknowledged by most reviews above, to see a live, fully staged opera in a small provincial town. Great music, fantastic musicians and excellent, powerful singing. Yes, the production and direction are absurd, and simply fail to make the points claimed by the director. The costumes are ridiculous and the whole staging just silly. My reaction was not the disgust registered by some reviewers, but laughter. But laughter is usually quite enjoyable, isn't it? Especially when accompanied by top-class music and voices. Manon's blue wig and mature figure, her awkward squirming and the ease with which she is persuaded to run away with Des Grieux don't present a passionate young girl leaving childhood and faced with life of convention and constraint, but as comic and ironic. If there is a reflection in the story of the tragic confusion facing girls today, it wasn't presented on stage. What we saw was theatrical business disconnected from the story, the music or the performances. The plot unfolds, well, twists and turns, but doesn't get clearer or closer to the director's interpretation of Abbe Prevost's tale. Certainly modern values might be squeezed out of the story, but the music, rich, passionate, tinged with foreboding, simply doesn't match the ridiculous staging. Pity, but still, there was real class there last night, and I lapped it up!   

Just returned from seeing this in Cambridge. Completely agree with the comments above: it was ghastly and incomprehensible. We got more pleasure from the funeral we had been to earlier in the day.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters