Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome – Puccini’s Manon Lescaut – Chiara Taigi & Gwyn Hughes Jones

Manon Lescaut – Opera in four Acts to a libretto by Ruggero Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Giuseppe Giacosa, Domenico Oliva, Luigi Illica, Giulio Ricordi and the composer after the Abbé Prévost’s novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut [sung in Italian, with English surtitles]

Manon Lescaut – Chiara Taigi
Lescaut – David Kempster
Chevalier des Grieux – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Geronte de Ravoir – Stephen Richardson
Edmondo – Simon Crosby Buttle
Innkeeper – Laurence Cole
A singer – Monika Sawa
A dancemaster / A lamplighter – Huw Llewellyn
Sergeant – Martin Lloyd
Captain – Stephen Richardson
Mr Eye – Tomasz Wygoda

Chorus & Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Lothar Koenigs

Mariusz Treliński – Director
Boris Kudlička – Set design
Magdalena Musial – Costume design
Felice Ross – Lighting design
Tomasz Wygoda – Choreography
Bartek Macias – Video projection
Ian Jones – Lighting

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 5 March, 2014
Venue: Birmingham Hippodrome, England

Manon Lescaut, Welsh National Opera. Photograph: www.wno.org.ukPuccini’s Manon Lescaut has been neglected of late. Now with Welsh National Opera performing and touring it, and with a new production scheduled for the summer at The Royal Opera, perhaps its star is in the ascendant again.

This performance was frustrating though, as whilst a stunning orchestral realisation was unleashed, matched by some full-throttle singing from the principals and the chorus, there was a confused mess before one’s eyes. The staging was modern – set in some dark dingy railway station, initially with Edmondo as a cleaner, and Des Grieux as a weary traveller. So far so good – a bustling station is a reasonable substitute for a coaching inn, and apart from the fact that in the original the onlookers (members of the chorus) are commentating on the to-ing and fro-ing and are integrated into the action, here they passed by as if uninterested. Modern theatrical alienation technique?

Manon appears as a sort of tart – either seducing Des Grieux or appearing to him in a reverie – it was never clear. At no point in Act One did she ever suggest the corruptible innocent of the original. This deprived the soprano of any opportunity to draw on Manon’s sympathetic traits. That various apparitions of Manon materialise throughout the evening made it seem more like a dream-sequence on the part of Des Grieux – but I would then be worried about his mental health. Is that what the director wanted? Lescaut becomes a pimp of a brother and Geronte a seedy sleaze-bag of a night-club owner. Act Two sees Manon living an illusory life of luxury – but the setting of Act Three was opaque. Who are these women (those about to be deported in the original?), and, of greater concern, who are the men settling their fate and in what context? It made even less sense when the surtitles resolutely stuck to a pretty faithful translation of the libretto. I felt sorry for any opera first-timer. Whilst thought-provoking, Puccini’s work deserves something rather more cogently and persuasively argued than this staging.

Manon Lescaut, Welsh National Opera. Photograph: www.wno.org.ukThankfully, there was musical recompense. The WNO Orchestra was on amazing form – the sound full, burnished and clear, and with numerous felicities to delight the ear. Lothar Koenigs’s interpretation had drive, passion and a real sense of the shape of the piece. Always sympathetic to the singers he allowed them to shine as best they could in the dark settings.

In the tricky title-role Chiara Taigi acquitted herself admirably. Her voice can sound a little raucous at the top, but the colour of the middle register was winning. She was at her best in the final two Acts, where her use of vibrato-less tone made the required dramatic impact. She lacked a true pianissimo, however, but her vibrant interpretation was very much in the mode of Callas and Scotto, and none the worse for that!

The role of Des Grieux really suits Gwyn Hughes Jones, who unleashed an endless flood of full-throated and glorious tone. Messrs Kempster and Richardson made their presence felt vocally despite being confined to the margins of the drama where character-development seemed neither possible nor plausible. The velvety tones and ebullient presence of Monika Sawa gave pleasure.


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