Chelsea Opera Group – Puccini’s Manon Lescaut [Claire Rutter & Francesco Anile]

Manon Lescaut – opera in four acts to a libretto by several hands [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Edmondo, a student – Andrew Bain
Chevalier Des Grieux – Francesco Anile
Lescaut, Manon’s brother, a sergeant of the King’s Guards – Jacques Imbrailo
Geronte di Ravoir, Treasurer-General – Jeremy White
L’Oste, the innkeeper – James Oldfield
Manon Lescaut – Claire Rutter
Un Musico, a singer – Deborah Miles-Johnson
Il Maestro di Ballo, the dancing-master – Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks
Sergente degli Arcieri, a sergeant of the Royal Archers – James Oldfield
Un Lampionaio, a lamplighter – Andrew Bain
Un Comandante, a naval captain – Christopher Childs Santos

Chorus & Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group
Gianluca Marcianò

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 5 June, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Chelsea Opera Group’s three concert performances per year are among London’s most joyful operatic events. A loyal orchestra and enthusiastic chorus provide the infrastructure and ensure a reliable foundation before which an invariably well-chosen cast of singers zealously performs what are in many cases works from the outer reaches of the repertoire and which they may never sing again.

Manon Lescaut is more of a repertory work, Puccini’s first success after two lame attempts at opera in Le Villi and Edgar. And COG has presented it before. Two previous operatic compositions based on the Abbé Prévost’s novel had already been written by the time Puccini began planning his own Manon Lescaut in 1889 or 1890. Massenet’s Manon of 1884 had a head start; Puccini (and his publisher Giulio Ricordi) thought it politic to distance the Italian’s opera from its recent French rival. The addition of a surname to the title was just the first step. Puccini’s hapless army of librettists (at least five and probably more) were faced with the need to avoid competing on the same ground. The main casualty was dramatic continuity: there is a massive hole between Acts One and Two where logic demands that we should see at least a brief glimpse of the lovers’ happy cohabitation. Puccini’s and Ricordi’s obsession leads to a jarring jump from the lovers’ absconding in Amiens at the end of Act One to a time where Manon is installed and settled as a kept woman in Paris, without any of the heartache of their enforced separation. Puccini, who tinkered much with his compositions, harboured for years a gnawing dissatisfaction with the narrative gap between the first two Acts, and it remains damaging.

George Bernard Shaw’s review of the London premiere (which took place in the same week as that of Verdi’s Falstaff) wrote of the work’s “catching melodies” and also praised its progressive style. Indeed musically it is forward-looking, through-composed, the traditional Italian operatic forms dissolved and Wagnerian harmonic influence absorbed. While not leitmotifs in the true sense, melodic figures are woven into the score throughout.

If the opera as completed lacks organic continuity, it is the pulses of emotional electricity in the solo and duet music for the two principals which hold it together. The Italian tenor Francesco Anile, deputising for Julian Gavin, was a felicitous discovery. He took a few utterances before the tone became roundly focused but in the climax of Des Grieux’s first aria he displayed the ringing high notes that were to distinguish his performance. He is short of stature and far from romantic of figure but is clearly in his vocal prime. Possessed of ample stamina, the voice was still trumpeting powerfully in the last Act. These were not isolated stentorian bullets that he was firing but the peaks of phrases carefully shaped and invested with warmth. Familiar with the role, which he has sung in large houses, he dispensed with a score and if his manner was on the phlegmatic side, he was not helped by a perverse disposition of the singers which left him and his Manon on opposite sides of the conductor’s podium.

Claire Rutter conveyed the initial timidity of Manon at the lovers’ first brief meeting, responding passively to Des Grieux’s eager wooing and allowing him to take the initiative. Not until “Ah! sogno gentil, mio sospiro infinito!” did she open up. She was impressive in the opening scene of Act Two but the love-duet itself rather hung fire. She seemed to be saving herself for the final scene in the desert. This was certainly her Act: beginning by showing Manon’s physical frailty, then exploiting the dark sound of her chest notes as she was ravaged by thirst and ending with a sovereign “Sola, perduta, abbandonata”.

Nevertheless, although Rutter has an impressive CV, on this occasion and in this work she seemed just a fraction underpowered (both leading roles have regularly been cast with lyrico-spinto voices). Puccini’s Manon is a femme fatale more in the mould of Carmen than Massenet’s romanticised creature. She dies in the gutter rather than gazing up at a diamond in the sky. Maybe a lack of confidence in making her debut in the role, suggested by her reliance on the score, unsettled Rutter. Perhaps we have been spoilt by the star quality so often shown by Chelsea sopranos.

Jacques Imbrailo is a fine singer with two Rosenblatt Recitals to his name and a great future ahead of him as a lyric baritone, but Lescaut is a thankless role, for which Puccini has supplied only colourless music. Despite Imbrailo’s efforts, immaculate vocalism and clarity of enunciation it would take a stage production to allow him to make something tangible of the character.

Of the comprimarii, Jeremy White, Falstaffian of figure and doddery of manner, created a well-defined and amusing vignette of Geronte, Manon’s “protector”. Andrew Bain offered a lyrical line as the resourceful student Edmondo. Where he doubled as the lamp-lighter some top notes were not ingratiating. Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks made a telling appearance as the Dancing-Master.

The conductor of this score has his work cut out to create a coherent structure from this patchwork of impassioned lyricism, various genre pieces and bustling stage action. The choice of conductor has been significant to many of COG’s recent triumphs and so it was on this occasion. Gianluca Marcianò impressed when leading La traviata in 2010. Here he showed his ability to communicate the spirit of verismo. The very opening bars had the air bristling with excitement, the brilliance of Puccini’s orchestration of chirping wind figurations over pizzicato strings driven along irresistibly. The warmth with which the orchestra accompanied the first encounter of the lovers was an equally telling fruit of his direction. He justly brought the orchestra to its feet after the ‘Intermezzo’, given with no sense of playing safe but with a degree of slancio which was exhilarating. Working with a relatively unpolished band was turned into an advantage.

He worked well with the singers, especially with Rutter, half turning towards her in the last Act, seeking to draw out the maximum of expressiveness. But it was the difficult passages with chorus and principals which raised the temperature highest, especially the conclusion of Act Three. Puccini handles this scene of the embarkation from Le Havre most originally, combining the traditional concertato form with a scene à faire. Unity is provided by the continuing roll-call of the prostitutes, the chorus naturalistically adding their comments as each is named and passes, while the rising musical temperature is prompted by the principals’ increasingly impassioned discourse. Not only does Puccini make something dramatically masterful out of a basically artificial convention but he pulls an unexpected rabbit out of the hat at the end with Des Grieux’s entreaty “Guardate! Pazzo son”.

The ever-reliable COG chorus was here faced with a challenge quite different from the block choral writing of most of the operas it has performed. So much of the choral music in this opera requires the singers to represent sections of a disparate crowd and the fragmentary nature of their utterances present testing challenges which brought them to the brink but were mostly successfully overcome. On this evidence the permanent appointment of Deborah Miles-Johnson as Chorus Master has already paid dividends.

Generally one version of a duplicated operatic title establishes itself and alternative treatments soon disappear from view (who now remembers Paër’s Leonora or Bona’s Don Carlo?). Manon Lescaut is an exception. The true miracle would be if Auber’s opera of the same title entered the repertoire. Perhaps COG would like to take the plunge?

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