Death by Des Grieux, Encore

Puccini

Death by Des Grieux, Encore

An emotionally powerful Manon Lescaut from the Grange Festival, reviewed by David Truslove

It is a brave individual who updates Puccini. So it was of considerable interest to see the veteran director Stephen Lawless wrench Manon Lescaut out of the mid-18th century and situate Puccini’s first operatic success (1893) in Nazi-occupied France. Black and white film footage prefacing each act provides a visual historical context. Little change geographically, yet the director’s dramatic licence heightens the work’s darkness with his transformation of the wealthy Geronte into a collaborator and Le Havre’s detention centre occupied by resistance fighters avenging wartime crimes. The deportation envisaged by Lawless (to some unspecified location) brings far more sinister overtones than the American colonies outlined in the original novel by the Abbé Prévost. But is anything gained by suggesting an incestuous relationship between Manon and her brother?

Adrian Linford’s designs are devoid of purpose. Setting Act I largely in a dilapidated schoolroom which morphs into a restaurant and then a garage is frankly bizarre. Similarly, attiring the students in shorts and sandals seems absurd. How does this reinforce any sense of tragedy? At least there’s a luxuriously appointed Parisian salon, but why are the madrigalists dressed as men? Overall, it’s a fanciful reshaping which undermines the work’s emotional core that is the relationship between the pleasure-seeking Manon and a helplessly infatuated Des Grieux.

It’s unfortunate that social distancing weakens the chemistry between Elin Pritchard (Manon) and Peter Auty (Des Grieux). That said, the absence of any physicality between them is balanced by totally committed singing in which passion is embedded in every phrase. Their love duet in Act II – a glorious set piece exploring the whole gamut of desire and fidelity – brought some of the evening’s finest moments, singers uniting in their climactic top notes as each declared their feelings. Auty may not be the finest stage actor for such a love-struck idealist, but his soaring tenor glows with ardour, and his Puccinian credentials were confirmed earlier in the intensity of ‘Donna non vidi mahi’. Pritchard’s coy then coquettish Manon is no less stylish, consistently holding the ear and the eye in her portrayals of ennui, regret and desolation. This may be her role debut, but she is a naturally gifted Manon and her closing ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata!’ as she awaits her lonely death is achingly beautiful. Pritchard more than amply fulfils Puccini’s wish for his listeners to ‘feel the passion and the tears’.

Nicholas Lester impresses as Lescaut bringing to this problematic role just the right mix of charm and cunning. Stephen Richardson is a chain smoking and menacing Geronte, and Kamil Bien cleverly fulfils multiple personalities as Edmondo, dancing master and lamplighter. The Grange Festival Chorus were in fine fettle and Francesco Cilluffo proved to be an invigorating conductor, directing singers with unfailing commitment.

Just a pity, due to Covid considerations, we do not have the players of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra there in person: a month or so before curtain up they pulled out of planned performances unable to satisfy the recommended social distancing in the pit. The resulting pre-recorded digital soundtrack, whereby remarkable technology enables the tempo to be accommodated to the conductor’s baton, worked surprisingly well. One misses a certain spontaneity between players and singers, but there is no lack of excitement or emotional punch in this account of Puccini’s enduringly melodramatic score.

Editorial note: QR reviewed Manon Lescaut in June 2019 at www.quarterly-review.org/Death-by-Des-Grieux/

Sung in Italian with surtitles in English, the Grange Festival’s production is at Northington, Alresford, Hampshire until 24th July

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