mon 24/06/2024

Manon Lescaut, Opera Holland Park review - attempt to empower commodified woman falls flat | reviews, news & interviews

Manon Lescaut, Opera Holland Park review - attempt to empower commodified woman falls flat

Manon Lescaut, Opera Holland Park review - attempt to empower commodified woman falls flat

Star quality from Elizabeth Llewellyn doesn't quite lift this dramatically inert evening

Manon (Elizabeth Llewellyn) humiliatedAll images by Ali Wright

"Waiting is always wearisome," declare the socialites as glitter-and-be-gay Manon Lescaut receives in the home of her nasty old "protector" Geronte. Despite the numerous sugar-plums Puccini weaves into his first fluent operatic masterpiece, waiting is very wearisome in the first half of Karolina Sofulak's new production for Opera Holland Park.

Anticipation that glorious soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn will flourish is eventually rewarded; but laryngitis two weeks ago has left her not in best voice. And her love interest, tenor Peter Auty as Des Grieux, seems worried about catching it, since he hardly touches her during their impassioned Act 2 duet. All is supple and well rehearsed from the City of London Sinfonia under Peter Robinson in the pit, static and lifeless on stage.

Sofulak gives us neither the 18th-century powder and paint of the Abbé Prévost novel upon which Puccini and the more effete Massenet based their operas nor the "desperate passion" Puccini vowed as his trump card (and succeeded), at least not in the acting. There are only three settings: the 1960s club/bar which makes a poor substitute for the hustle and bustle of a square in Amiens, Geronte's love-nest and an endgame with a brick wall and a lamp-post: no shipping off to America for the fallen woman - probably wouldn't work in the setting - nor death in the desert plain improbably located beyond New Orleans. Scene from OHP Manon LescautThe cabined and confined crowd in Act 1 get to do some desultory moves as Tim Claydon's choreography injects a bit of belated life into the (in)action, but there's none of the youthful vivacity radiating from the orchestral handling of Puccini's score. Co-ordination wasn't strong on the first night; Robinson tends to keep his head down, most often in the score, and doesn't provide the ideal high beat for the singers. Star quality comes at last with the elegant and slightly sphinx-like presence of Llewellyn's Manon, and a bit of moonshine in her first meeting with Des Grieux; Auty has the right Italianate sound, though the very top is now bottled. His desperation in the later stages is vocally convincing. Paul Carey Jones as Manon's creepy-energetic pimp-brother and Stephen Richardson as big-bucks Geronte (both pictured above with Llewellyn) bring the most to their characterisations.

There is no luxury, nor bling, for the rich man's house, only tatty furniture (OHP never has a big budget for design, but George Johnson-Leigh could have taken a leaf out of Antony McDonald's Ariadne auf Naxos at OHP last year and insisted on a classier dressing-table and bed; it doesn't take much). That elf outfit Manon chooses for couture may be authentically 60s, as far as I know, but it's the one piece of fashion which Llewellyn can't wear well. To have one camp stereotype for the fashion-shoot which substitutes for Manon's dancing lesson is otiose, even if we know that gay men were still forced into those roles in the 1960s; to give us five is enraging. The duet is a physical embarrassment, though vocally good: "come, embrace me, hold me close to your breast," sings Manon, but Auty's Des Grieux seems reluctant to come close (contact at last pictured below). Manon's arrest is lifeless on stage, though Robinson has certainly put the strings through their paces in the focus and fire of the final confusion. Llewellyn and Auty in OHP Manon LescautWith more spotlight on the music, Act 3 fares better: the Intermezzo glows, the ensemble in which nominally the prostitutes are lined up for export packs the biggest punch of the evening. Sofulak has the not bad idea of making them multiple Manons in glittering evening wear: still sold objects humiliated by the bar-room crowd gawking at them. The big feminist statement comes in Act 4. This Manon has simply had enough of men, Des Grieux included - and who wouldn't, since he only whines on about his terrible fate. There are some awkward misalliances between text and staging, but nothing wrong with the idea of Manon removing herself, not dying. It just isn't moving, though Llewellyn is perfectly poised and now in near-vintage voice. The trouble with what Sofulak calls in the programme a "meditation on female empowerment" is that, however you look at it, Puccini's and Prévost's heroine has no power at all. And that in itself can be disturbing. Here, alas, we're left unruffled.

This Manon has simply had enough of men, Des Grieux included - and who wouldn't, since he only whines about his terrible fate


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

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