Opera Holland Park – Manon Lescaut

Manon Lescaut [Opera in Four Acts – Libretto by Giacosa & Illica, and others, after Abbé Prévost’s “L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut”]

Manon Lescaut – Amanda Echalaz
Des Grieux – Sean Ruane
Lescaut – Simon Thorpe
Geronte du Ravoir – Lynton Black
Edmondo / Dancing Master / Lamp Lighter – Todd Wilander
A Musician – Hannah Pedly
Landlord – Nicholas Butterfield
Naval Captain – Adam Green

Opera Holland Park Chorus

City of London Sinfonia
John Gibbons

Tim Carroll – Director
Bob Bailey – Designer
Mike Gunning – Lighting

Reviewed by: Paul Hutchinson

Reviewed: 7 June, 2006
Venue: Opera Holland Park, London

Puccini’s first real success in the opera house was “Manon Lescaut”, first performed in 1893 at Turin. The libretto is based on the autobiographical novella by Abbé Prévost, but Puccini tried to approach the subject from a somewhat different angle to that of Massenet in his opera on the same subject in 1884 (“Manon”); Massenet, Puccini said, “emphasised the powder and the minuets. I want to feel the passion and the tears”.

Puccini’s ‘Manon’ is certainly nearer in spirit to Prévost’s rather silly heroine than Massenet’s; and passion and tears saturate Puccini’s score . Anyway, comparisons can, they say, be odious. It’s just sufficient to note the freshness, the youthful vitality and the inventiveness of the music from the opening onwards.

Freshness and vitality, as well as some good solo work, are the mainstays of this Opera Holland Park production John Gibbons goes from strength to strength; each year his leading of the orchestra shines out across the auditorium. The well-known ‘Intermezzo’ was especially eloquent, with nicely shaped phrases from the cellist.

On stage, we were less fortunate: Minimalism dominated the entire evening. This may be fine in the last scene, the Louisiana desert, but the crucial second act, with Manon’s toilette, as well as other moments, such as the fuss made by Geronte de Ravoir (the supremely excellent Lynton Black enjoying himself immensely); how skilfully Gibbons gets the musicians to accompany the words of yet another dreary madrigal to his Manon.

The whole stage-business was played out in what looked like an aircraft-hanger, Manon and Des Grieux reuniting in the ‘Love Duet’ from opposite sides of the stage. A nobleman climb on top of his amour ‘a flagrante’ Tacky!

As Manon, Amanda Echalaz is a pupil of former English National Opera baritone Neil Howlett, himself an excellent artiste. Echalaz sang superbly throughout. ‘In quelle trine morbide’ was appropriately inward; with Des Grieux’s return in Act Two she was by turns hectic, flurried and guilty, and her solo in the last scene had just the right dolefulness. She moved and acted well.

Having enjoyed his Ruggero (“La Rondine”) Sean Ruane’s Des Grieux was disappointing. Des Grieux’s music is written with passion, and ardour and passionate declamation. Ruane sang the notes to perfection – they just didn’t seem to mean much to him. Maybe in the last act he started to get into some sort of stride. Let’s hope it was due to first-night nerves etc.

Simon Thorpe’s Lescaut, Manon’s brother, was a lovely cameo study, and came over very well. The Chorus, as usual, was excellent.

So Tim Carroll’s new production holds no thrills. Puccini’s genius for theatrical effectiveness is all too evident in all his operas, and it must be respected.

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