thu 25/07/2024

Manon Lescaut, Welsh National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Manon Lescaut, Welsh National Opera

Manon Lescaut, Welsh National Opera

Puccini charmer rehoused in an airport lounge, saved by the conductor

Chiara Taigi at the terminal bar, already fallingJohan Persson

As before, WNO have a theme for their new opera season: this time it’s Fallen Women, a topic that might well attract the attention of the Equal Opportunities Commission. Surely men have the right to fall as well; we await, in June, The Fall of the House of Usher, a much fairer piece than Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which opened the company’s winter season in a new production by the Polish director Mariusz Treliński.

In Debussy’s Usher brother and sister both fall, and the house falls on top of them.

Treliński is in any case much taken with the theme. Not only is his Manon (Chiara Taigi) already fallen when she first appears in a red plastic raincoat and dark glasses, a gangster’s moll to the life, but by the last act he has two fallen Manons, both very much alive and kicking but still falling. Poor Des Grieux (Gwyn Hughes Jones) doesn’t know which way to turn, and nor perhaps do the audience. In between, whole processions of fallen women pass in review, culminating in the prostitutes with whom Manon is being transported to America, all dressed (if that’s not too strong a word) like strippers in a fairly advanced state, their hands tied high above their heads, their abject humiliation in direct contradiction of Puccini’s stage direction, which has them saucy, nonchalant and laughing.

When Manon reveals she is about to take the veil, one checks one's programme for a possible error

There is other evidence of Treliński’s somewhat dubious taste in male voyeurism, and more or less continuous evidence of his contempt for the verbal and musical text he’s supposed to be presenting to his eager public. When this slinky Manon reveals that she is about to take the veil, one checks one’s programme for a possible error. Then the penny drops. Puccini’s opera is being run in tandem with another piece loosely based on Prévost’s novel, Henze’s Boulevard Solitude, in which Manon is indeed a cigarette-smoking slag and Des Grieux goes druggy. If you assume that Treliński, who is directing both operas, has devised his Henze and simply tyre-levered the Puccini into it, you’ll get some flavour of the perversity and stylistic dysfunctionality of this wretched show.

Leaving aside the libretto's specific 18th-century settings, which are anyway semi-contradicted by Puccini’s richly textured late 19th-century score, we’re left with a depressing repertoire of directorial clichés. Where else have we seen these dark-spectacled, black suited and brief-cased zombie executives masquerading as an opera chorus? Or these rectangular black-and-white sliding screens and whizzing city lights and back projections; this permanent airport lounge, whether a square in Amiens or a Paris mansion or a Le Havre prison (to say nothing of the Louisiana desert: just imagine dying of thirst in Terminal 5 – but then, precisely, Treliński’s Manon doesn’t really die at all). Boris Kudlička and Magdalena Musial designed all this, but they might as well have bought it second-hand on Amazon, for all the relevance it has to this soaring music. As for the warmth and human intricacy of Prévost’s heroine, torn between the need to be loved and the desperate attachment to material possessions, you might as well forget them.

Musical virtues remain, though they do not consistently shine. Hughes Jones (pictured right by Johan Persson) is a vocally stylish if slightly reedy Des Grieux but an inert actor; Taigi slinks well and has the figure for it, but the voice lacks real colour throughout the range, and the director makes sure her presence is charmless. David Kempster is a strong Lescaut, though unable to make much of his volatile character. Stephen Richardson plays Geronte convincingly if disagreeably as a high-class trafficker in (fallen) women, re-emerging unexpectedly in the third act as the ship’s captain. The chorus is excellent as ever, students no more but faceless middle management, and their chief spokesman, the amiable Edmondo (Simon Crosby Buttle), is ludicrously recast as a kind of clairvoyant airport-cleaner, who sees everything and cleans nothing.

The main saving grace, however, is some superb orchestral playing, eloquently masterminded by Lothar Koenigs. Some dodgy ensemble can be partly attributed to Treliński’s frequently unhelpful upstage placings. He must have hoped that distance would lend enchantment. It doesn’t.

Mariusz Treliński is evidently much taken with the Fallen Women theme


Editor Rating: 
Average: 1 (1 vote)

Share this article


Indeed… I felt very sorry for the excellent musicians and singers who were battling risible direction. It was much better with your eyes closed. Often there was no connection between the words and action. Des G. needed reminding that Manon's hair was on her head (where it should be) and not in the telephone booth (where he was, purporting to stroke it). When Manon was dying of thirst I had to resist the temptation of suggesting Des Grieux pop out to Nandos and get her a coke… Oh dear.

WNO Manon Lescaut. In my opinion, musically it was a triumph. Every drop was caressed out of the orchestra. Simply gorgeous sound with Katherine Thomas shining with a glorious harp part. Des Grieux, was sublime, as was Manon. Very occasionally Manon's voice wasn't effective when placed far right of set with odd acoustic / bond with pit. Certainly not fault of hers. Could have been my fault of my central circle seat position, sound distortion? The 'blind cleaner' was amazing, what a voice , who is he? Hope we'll see more of him! However, In my opinion the production was twisted, sick and degrading. Horrible to the core. Someone's on a gratuitous power trip - in my opinion. A production that was trying to be clever when it wasn't clever. Just sick. Perverted -in my opinion. Some members of audience raving in the interval thinking they were hip, they believed it was ok because it was dressed up in art form. It was wrong to try and pervert the audience like this. If WNO think it's normal in Puccini to see people degraded in this way in a production with no age restriction on tickets then they need a look at themselves. The story was warped and twisted into something it isn't. I went to see Puccini not Sunset Boulevard. I have five £5 tickets for next Saturday if anyone wants to buy them from me - otherwise I'm requesting refund on grounds I wasn't informed it was unsuitable for under 18's when I bought them, so glad I went first on my own. The desk downstairs said immediately afterwards that they don't give refunds - we'll see about that! The worst part for me was seeing children in the audience. WNO you can't encourage children to go to the opera and then not rate unsuitable productions. This was PUCCINI. Before the opera there were warnings of strobe lighting there should have also been warnings of gratuitous sexual scenes, extreme violence, drug use ... Carry on like this and your core regular under 45 audience will walk, no sprint away....

Ps wasn't it a tube /night time train station ? The lights behind were of bullet type trains ? Production reminds me of two year old acting up to get attention, any attention even if it's bad. Trying to shock - just Sad. Grow up -behaviour like this is pathetic .

Just back from seeing this catastrophe. Why do the opera if it is to totally contradict everything in the libretto. It was amateur in its childish approach and ruined a decent piece of work. I have supported WNO for years and they should be ashamed at charging people £40 a ticket and then insulting their intelligence. My worst night at the opera.

Couldn't agree more. I didn't see any children in the audience but it was not suitable for them at all. Neither did I hear anything other than criticism from other members of the audience after the show; and the artistic director was booed, of course. There was a total mismatch between music and setting which created confusion and depression - the first time I'd seen or heard the opera. The setting was pretentious and said more about the director than the music. Maybe WNO are afraid to be seen as 'not modern'? Puccini must be turning in his grave.

I've just endured a DVD of Treliński's Eugene Onegin production from Valencia. It is just as Stephen describes this Manon Lescaut: 'a depressing repertoire of directorial clichés'. There's plenty of good, inventive Regietheater around, but this guy's is the worst kind.

Could not agree more. The orchestra and Hughes Jones did an excellent job in the face of intrusive, unsympathetic and in places downright crude production design and direction. Taigi was better in Act 4 but lacked the vocal or emotional colour to carry the lead. For me the rest of the cast, and unusually the chorus, were lost with non existent diction reducing much of the singing to an indistinct mush. That said I would not have felt like giving my best if directed to play in such a dismal production. Come on WNO. That score and your superb musicians deserve better. You are capable of so much more. The worst I have seen from you in years.

I have to agree with the above comments. Why won't directors let the music speak for itself. This interpretation did not enhance the music in anyway rather the reverse. By putting the chorus at the back of the stage some of the ensemble work did not have that tightness this music deserves. Full marks to the orchestra who played so convincingly with some raptuous cello solo.

Contrary to popular opinion, I considered this production dealt very well with Puccini's score. Trelinski's strong choice of setting the story in a contemporary public space most effectively off set the often immature sentimental writing of the young Puccini. This staging supported the music, it sustained it and allowed the spectator to be moved without being bored by it's lack of depth. The use of the chorus was highly poetic and interesting; evoking TS Eliot's vision of the unreal city. The story of Manon Lescaut, as told by Prevost, is cyclical and eliptical. It is not a linear narrative and most of the time we have to read between the lines to deduce the extent of the abuse Manon is subjected to. Trelinksi's suggestive, dream-like world dealt with this eloquently. Further more, his staging of Act 4 - where Manon and Des Grieux are lost in a wasteland in America was psychologically fascinating. Des Grieux, crazed with his obsession for an already dead Manon, saw her everywhere. A ghostly Manon saw apparations of herself - perhaps saw her various selves dissolving, and thus chillingly realised how alone she was: "sola, perduta, landa desolata". Her own consciousness was the wasteland. How genius of Trelinski to subvert the predictable "opera heroine dies" moment by implying she is already dead! Of course, at the end of the opera, Manon was also standing in our wasteland - a littered empty train station - a modern nightmarish liminal space - where everybody passes through but no one really is. Trelinski's use of suggestion is balanced with a healthy dose of "in your face: moments. When the same figures who populate the train station take part in a disturbing game in which they bet on when prostitutes, strung up by their hands and walking on tiptoe, will fall over, one feels that the problems of our own world are uncomfortably close. How exciting to watch an opera production which so actively and perceptively is engaging with contemporary social issues. The implications for shared responsibility and accountability in relation to the treatment of women, in a setting that clearly evokes modernity, and our own ways of life, were perhaps, for some spectators and critics (especially those who think it's fine to use the words "slag" and "tart" in relation to an exploited woman) difficult to handle.

C'mon, anon, 'the often immature sentimental writing of the young Puccini'? He was 35 and knew exactly what he was doing. It's far too short and racy for anyone to be bored and as I was taught by an inspiring English master, there's nothing wrong with 'sentimental', it's only 'over-sentimental' that's at fault.

But I haven't seen this show - not that I would having endured the Trelinski Onegin - so perhaps I'd better shut up.


It appears to me as if 'Anonymous' is right there in Trelinski's head! A place where not many others wish to go. Is Trelinski himself the author of this review comes to mind? I saw this production right the way through, unlike many others in the audience who walked out. For those, both young and old, it was just too much vulgarity or rather too crude. I stood there at the doors as they walked out at the first interval. Young people laughing and commenting at how stupid it was and older people disgusted at how this was a far removal from Puccini's intention. It was a base interpretation of the Puccini opera. No where did this production gel with the music and yes our society can be cruel and base but 'Anonymous' is suggesting cruelty and depravity is just about everywhere and it is simply not so. The comment about wondering if 'taking the veil' was a great glaring error for this overly made-up, shiny, trench-coated female just about sums up the brain-storming, perverse opera production this is. If this was an attempt to attract the avant-guard the reaction of the youngsters who walked out laughing implies this production didn't work. Personally, I feel I should have been paid to sit through it.

Came down to Cardiff with my wife for our wedding anniversary hoping to see Manon Lescaut, by Puccini. Once there, If we closed our eyes and listened, we could certainly hear Manon Lescaut, and excellent it was too. Unfortunately, whenever we opened our eyes, we saw something else, not by Puccini. I think it might have been "The Idiot and the Trollop" by someone called Mariusz Trelinski. Mr Trelinski obviously thinks he is cleverer than Puccini, and probably everyone else too. He isn't. Why is it always the "right-on" directors and theatre types who think this? The musicians don't. I agree with the comments about children. I am no prude, but I am very glad I did not bring our 14 year old daughter to see this "production". I thought the world had grown out of this kind of dark, ugly, nasty, post-modern, brutalist, pseudo-socialist-realist garbage. But obviously it is still going strong in Cardiff. Oh - WNO have added insult to injury by asking me to fill in an on-line customer satisfaction survey in which, as usual, the WRONG QUESTIONS are asked in an attempt to skew my answers. I haven't bothered. We will just go to Opera North next time.

Agree with these comments. This was the fourth disaster of the season for WNO. Sometimes with Regietheater one asks "what does the director mean by mutilating this opera?". Usually, there is some crude adolescent or political vanity forced onto a once great work but In this incoherent mess, the answer almost certainly is "nothing". Quite why opera companies persist in hiring directors who clearly don't understand opera, or those who clearly hate it as in this "production" is a depressing mystery. Unfortunately, with subsidies, it is hard to hit them in the box office for such travesties.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on 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 gift subscription?


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