English Touring Opera – Puccini’s Manon Lescaut – Jenny Stafford, GarethDafydd Morris & Aidan Edwards; directed by Jude Christian; conducted by Gerry Cornelius

<div>English Touring Opera – Puccini’s Manon Lescaut – Jenny Stafford, GarethDafydd Morris & Aidan Edwards; directed by Jude Christian; conducted by Gerry Cornelius</div>

Alongside considerable colour and exuberance, Jude Christian’s production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut for English Touring Opera poignantly, even sardonically, contrasts  the life of luxury which the eponymous character could have had with Geronte in Paris with the scorched desolation of the desert to which she is banished for her infidelity with the impecunious Des Grieux. Watery opulence is conjured up in the first half with the basic, blue-tiled setting denoting a swimming pool or lido, ringed with ample water dispensers, and later joined by Geronte’s house where the assembled socialites quaff wine from bottles ostentatiously poured into an overflowing tower of champagne coupes. A TV screen displays a sequence of succulent images of bubbling drinks and streaming rivers, and it’s hardly accidental that one of the lavish furnishings on display is a bath in which it is possible to wallow in liquid comfort.

The gaudy, feathery outfits of the crowd in Act One, who celebrate youthful pleasure and love, seem to take their cue from the references to birds and springtime in the text. That visual embodiment of the moderate season of gentle growth and warmth contrasts with the searing heat of the American desert in which Manon and Des Grieux end up in Act Four, where she dies of thirst and heat exhaustion. The gold backdrop of the latter scene here evokes the sun effectively enough, if perhaps rather too jubilantly, though it makes an ironic reference to Manon’s former lavish life, and maybe also that her fate is the opposite to her counterpart in Puccini’s later output, the Girl of the Golden West. If Manon is no angel, the frolicking and whoring; with which Geronte denounces her is generally understandable, as an all-seeing eye on the wall of his house, as well as on an amulet around his neck, indicates an oppressive, controlling atmosphere which she may well want to escape.

Jude Christian’s translation of the libretto (she’s not the librettist as the programme claims – that would be quite a feat for an opera premiered in 1893) has a homely poetry about it which enables the singers to despatch their parts idiomatically and bring an immediacy to the.drama for the audience. Manon is tenderly, lithely sung by Jenny Stafford, expressing an underlying vulnerability rather than either overweening or naive ambition. Gareth Dafydd Morris initially sounds somewhat dry as her lover, Des Grieux, and comes under pressure vocally. But by Act Two his delivery settles down, sustained by some baritonal heft if not so much lyrical ardour. Curiously dressed as a sort of effete Oscar Wilde-style fop, EdwardHawkins nevertheless sings with an unbending, detached haughtiness to denote the character’s domineering nature. Aidan Edwards conveys a down-to-earth liveliness as Manon’s brother Lescaut, while Brenton Spiteri’s Edmondo has impish charm. 

Gerry Cornelius conducts a sprightly account of the score, the reduced forces of the ETO.Orchestra imparting much alacrity and spirit. Together with the resounding chorus they achieve a real delirium of joy in Act One’s ensemble. The close collaboration of the smaller number of orchestral performers within a relatively compact space as the Oxford Playhouse brings about a vividness in the music that makes it like a soundtrack propelling the action. But there is also a chamber-like intensity in some sequences, which enhance the drama’s tragedy, such as the intermezzo which precedes Act Three – here imbued with the interiority of something like Beethoven’s late quartets – or the echoes of the composer’s recently completed I Crisantemi. In this anniversary year, commemorating the centenary of Puccini’s death, this is an approachable, animated rendition of one of his less frequently encountered operas.

Further performances at various locations to May 27

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