Royal Opera Jette Parker Young Artists Programme – Le Portrait de Manon / Les Nuits d’été

Le Portrait de Manon – Opera in one act to a libretto by Georges Boyer [sung in French]
Les Nuits d’été, Op.7 [sung in French]

Aurore – Susana Gaspar
Jean – Hanna Hipp
Tiberge – Pablo Bemsch
Des Giroux – ZhengZhong Zhou

Les Nuits d’été
Villanelle [sung by Pablo Bemsch]
Le spectre de la rose [Hanna Hipp]
Sur les lagunes [Hipp]
Absence [Susana Gaspar]
Au cimetière [Bemsch]
L’Ile inconnu [Gaspar]

Southbank Sinfonia
Geoffrey Paterson [Massenet]
Volker Krafft

Pedro Ribeiro – Director
Sophie Mosberger – Designer
Warren Letton – Lighting
Mandy Demetriou – Movement

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 21 October, 2011
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at Royal Opera House, London

The Jette Parker Young Artists were sounding in good health in this unusual double-bill. Massenet’s Le Portrait de Manon (1894) is an epilogue to his Manon of a decade earlier. Des Grieux, now a sad man in thrall to memories of his love for Manon, has no time for his nephew Jean’s passion for Aurore and is resolutely opposed to their marriage, despite the efforts of his old friend Tiberge. Jean finds a faded photograph of Manon and notices the similarity if looks between her and Aurore (who turns out to have been Manon‘s niece). In the finale, Jean dresses Aurore as Manon, rendering Des Grieux’s resistance futile. Not wishing to put the lovers through the same misery that he experienced, he agrees to their marriage.

In his director’s note, Pedro Ribeiro (also on the Jette Parker programme) writes that this short (about 45 minutes) one-acter might seem plain. But in fact there is some fine music, including a lovely Prelude very much in the melancholy mould of Werther, and the vocal writing is ingratiatingly lyrical and elegant. It also gives the four soloists plenty of scope for solo and ensemble work. Rightly, the Chinese baritone ZhengZhong Zhou dominated as Des Grieux, in perpetual mourning for Manon. His romantic looks and Byronic self-possession were matched by the weight and colour of his voice and its fluid, finely paced delivery. He was excellent in his opening gloomy narration, which usefully condenses three hours of Manon into a succinct few minutes. With some deft make-up, he also managed the age difference between him and nephew Jean convincingly. An Onegin in the making?

Jean was sung by the Polish mezzo Hanna Hipp, who looked great, rather in the English-rose style, en travestie, and, as did all the singers, moved well and in keeping with her character. She was completely confident with the girl-to-boy artificiality, she had an attractive, easy presence that drew you into the role, and her supple evenness of tone and volume throughout her register was very easy on the ear. I look forward to hearing her again.

Aurore is a rather two-dimensional character, aimed at revisiting the naive innocence of Manon before experience gets its hooks into her. Her opening, carefree vocalising, rather in the same area dramatically as the opening of Werther, jarred with the flavour of the rest of the piece, but the quality of the Portuguese soprano Susana Gaspar’s light, flexible voice was appealingly natural, the coloratura passages sung with panache, and the soubrette nature of the part engagingly realised. Des Grieux’s friend Tiberge was wittily played by Pablo Bemsch, with an ear for the quiet humour and subtlety the role requires. Bemsch, from Argentina, started out on his career as a baritone and now calls himself a tenor, but I needed his biography to point this out – he sounded more of a baritone, and a very good one, with enough of a contrast to Zhou’s darker range. Geoffrey Paterson (also on the Jette Parker programme) drew a transparent French sound from the impressive Southbank Sinfonia; Ribeiro’s direction and Sophie Mosberger’s designs kept things simple, although you’d have thought that the vision of Aurore as Manon dressed in rags would have driven poor Des Grieux over the edge.

Direction and design were much more elaborate for the first – and last, I shouldn’t wonder – staging I’ve ever seen of Berlioz’s song-cycle Les Nuits d’été (six settings of poems by Gautier), with heaps of grubby old mattresses arranged on the stage like graves, with one of the singers vanishing into her mattress, like a vampire returning to its tomb. Warren Letton’s lighting, copious quantities of mist and singers shrouded in funereal veils produced a modern-gothic, ghostly atmosphere that emphasised the melancholy of the songs without illuminating them, with the more light-hearted first and last songs having to be coerced into the concept of mourning for lost love. The staging was visually powerful, and disturbingly unattractive.

Pablo Bemsch had a bumpy ride ensemble-wise in ‘Vilanelle’ but recovered to reveal in this and ‘Au cimetière’ his tenor range with its strongly baritone inflection and his poised musicality – you could imagine him making a fine Pelléas. Hanna Hipp was outstanding in ‘Le Spectre de la rose’, with a sensuous range of half-lit colours and singing those exquisite turns with perfectly judged sensuous languor. Susana Gaspar’s cries of “Reviens, reviens” were wonderfully intense and her control of phrase and pace assured, and while the dotty staging of ‘L’Ile inconnu’ sabotaged its visionary quality, she sang it with charm and grace. Volker Krafft needed more strings to justify the prominence he gave to the some fine woodwind playing, but the Berlioz sound still came through strongly.

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