Death by Des Grieux
Review of Manon Lescaut, dramma lirico in four acts, music composed by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Ruggero Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Giuseppe Giacosa, Domenico Oliva and Luigi Illica, directed by Karolina Sofulak, conductor Peter Robinson, new production at Investec Opera Holland Park, 11th June 2019, reviewed by Leslie Jones
Director Karolina Sofulak’s new production of Manon Lescaut, designed by George Johnson-Leigh, is set in the 1960’s. The beehive hairstyle or B52 and the twist are all the rage – “our name is youth – our goddess is hope”, the students proclaim. Hedonism is rife for the scourge of AIDS has yet to announce itself. But, as in all of Puccini’s work, despair lurks below the surface. Manon (an excellent performance by Elizabeth Llewellyn, who has a rich and powerful voice) was happy once but she tells us that sadness now controls her destiny.
In ancient Greek tragedy, the hero or heroine is the author of their own downfall due to personal failings but also to adverse, overwhelming circumstances. Manon is torn between her love for penniless student Des Grieux and her predilection for the fine things which wealthy Tax Farmer-General Geronte di Ravoir is happy to provide – at a price. Manon’s brother Lescaut (Paul Carey-Jones), a shrewd judge of character, knows his sister only too well, indeed they are somewhat alike and he panders to her vanity and love of luxury. “A little lady who is bored is a frightening thing!”, he sagely observes, so he keeps her distracted. Indicatively, Manon ultimately fails to escape from Geronte’s clutches because she is desperate to retrieve her jewellery.
Des Grieux (Peter Auty, somewhat strained in the upper register) is aware of his lover’s faults but invariably succumbs to her powers of seduction – “Ah, Manon, your foolish thoughts betray me; always, the same, always the same!”, he expostulates (“Ah, Manon, mi tradisice il tuo folle pensier; sempre la stressa, sempre la stressa!”). A genuinely noble soul, faithful to the end, he is dragged down by his infatuation. He acknowledges, “I descend the ladder of shame. Slime in slime I am and a depraved hero of the gambling den…”
Manon Lescaut has its longueurs, notably the bizarre scene in Act Two featuring madrigals, a dancing master and a group of musicians. As Rupert Christiansen notes, Manon Lescaut was an “apprentice work, composed when he [Puccini] was still finding his emotional way…” (The Telegraph, 5th June 2019). In this production, the final act, supposedly set in the Louisiana desert, has some decidedly incongruous elements, including a building with a fire escape. But as music journalist Tom Service recently remarked (“Why is opera so ridiculous?”, The Listening Service, Radio 3, Friday 7th June, 2019) opera demands that we constantly suspend disbelief. So we do.
In Manon Lescaut, as in Tosca, there is love and there is death and suffering but unlike Tristan, “there is no…absolution or benediction” here, to quote the judge in Brian de Palma’s film Carlito’s Way (see “In a Place of Tears”, Quarterly Review, May 30th 2019).