Tuesday 25 February 2014

Fallen women: Manon Lescaut

Gwynne Hughes Jones, Chiara Taigi in Welsh National Opera's Manon Lescaut - photo Johan Perssonj
Gwynne Hughes Jones &
Chiara Taigi
Photo: Johan Persson
Puccini Manon Lescaut: Chiara Taigi, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Welsh National Opera, Lothar Koenigs: Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Feb 22 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Thought provoking and disturbing new production of Puccini's early opera

This version of Manon Lescaut by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) at the WNO in Cardiff was part of a series looking at fallen women. With the tag line ‘Who will you fall for?’ Manon, directed by Mariusz Trelinski , investigates the motives of fallen women. Manon was a powerful exploration into the question of whether these women are victims of society or have chosen an alternative path for a successful and pleasant life?

Originally banned when it was first published in 1731, Manon Lescaut (L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut) by Abbé Prévost was the last of the seven stories: Memories and Adventures of a Man of Quality Who Has Retired from the World. This final book is about a young man of fortune who runs away with a courtesan, only for them both to be destroyed as a result of her prostitution. Throughout the book Manon is viewed through the eyes of the men who desire her, so we can never know her thoughts and feelings about her life choices or their outcomes.

Manon was turned into an opera by Puccini in 1893. After the problems he had with Edgar, which failed at the box office largely due to its libretto, Puccini struggled to find a librettist whom he could work with and it took five attempts before the libretto was completed. Unlike Edgar, Manon was a complete success – Puccini took 30 curtain calls on the first night.

Puccini was interested in the post-Romantic backlash of verismo – a realistic style which studied the often sordid lives of ordinary people rather than the heroes and heroines of Romantic classicism. Manon Lescaut, with her complicated love life, was the perfect vehicle for him. In the opera Manon ( Chiara Taigi ) falls in love with student Chevalier des Grieux played by Gwyn Hughes Jones but because he is poor Manon takes up with the older Geronte di Ravoir ( Stephen Richardson ) who can keep her in food, nice clothes, and jewellery. However, in the opera, di Ravoir is a less than savoury character – we see him with prostitutes at a party. Des Grieux is also a weak character, playing cards in order to try and win enough money to win back Manon.

Aided by Manon’s brother Lescaut ( David Kempster ) des Grieux and Manon meet and plot to run away together. Their plan is foiled by di Ravoir who has Manon arrested for stealing, while des Grieux escapes. Manon is sent to prison in America, followed by the love stricken des Grieux, but by the end both are mentally lost. Manon in dreams of her lost youth and beauty, and des Grieux, who is more in love with the idea of love than its reality, of his passion for her.

The staging was magnificent. Set in a train station the set was overshadowed by a giant digital clock spun whose numbers spun round to indicate the passage of time. By the end, when the couple were lost, the clock was broken - no longer showing complete numbers.

Similarly at the start Edmondo, played by Simon Crosby Buttle , the cheeky chappie station cleaner who deserved much praise for his opening the opera, kept the stage swept. But as the opera progressed the station became more and more scruffy with papers and rubbish blowing around. The final act is supposed to be set in a desert in Louisiana (although Puccini obviously did not know there are no deserts in Louisiana) and by this point the papers blowing around resembled tumbleweed.

The chorus and extras were a slick and indefinable mixture of office worker and avatar from the Matrix. Trelinski’s vision was very filmic in scope (his early career was spent directing films) aided by the staging designed by Boris Kudlicka. Backdrops showed a moving city in lights (were we watching from the station or from the train?) and very bright flashing white lights to represent trains going past or spacial movement within the play.

At times there was more than one Manon on stage representing the fragmentation of her mind and personality. Fragmentation also occurred at a higher level. Scenes repeated, such as des Grieux on a bench being approached by Manon, visually tying together various aspects of the play, in the same way that repeated motifs in the music both unified the different scenes yet were transitory reminders of previous pivotal moments.

Welsh National Opera - Manon Lescaut, Photo Johan Persson
Photo Johan Persson
There was also a group of prostitutes, wearing ripped clothes and bondage, and pimps wielding golf clubs. The girls were shown as unbalanced, or possibly drugged, unable to stand up or walk properly. While Manon claims to have chosen her life as a kept woman the parallels between her and the girls were striking, from the party where she snorted cocaine and fell to the floor, to her appearance in prison (or is it a mental hospital) where she pleaded with des Grieux to forget about her.

Chiara Taigi ’s rich soprano voice and worldly stage presence prevented her portraying Manon as a vulnerable 16 year old Manon Lescaut - for most of the time she appeared vampishly in control of herself and not a capricious, whim-led personality. Only during the scene when she was at a party taking drugs did she appear young and insecure. She also seemed to be having a few problems with her voice as the opera went on, especially with her passaggio, and perhaps this was affecting her performance.

Des Grieux played by tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones was a confused, bumbling man – lots of formless passion. Either he or Taigi (or both) was on stage continuously and it was a big sing for them both. There was a lovely madrigal sung by ladies in gold dresses from the chorus which got a well deserved round of applause.

Conductor Lothar Koenigs has worked with the WNO since 2005 and as Music Director since 2009. The orchestra brought Puccini’s music to life – there are many recurrences of tunes that all need to be given prominence and this they did perfectly. There were some lovely solos and indeed some atmospheric silences. However there were also some strange moments where the orchestra and chorus sounded out of time, but this settled down as the opera progressed.

While the hero and heroine are not likeable characters, nor are they charismatic, the performances and production were thought provoking if not a little disturbing. Manon Lescaut was a inspiring introduction to the WNO’s look at the role of women at the edges of society.

The fallen women series at the WNO continues with La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi and Hans Werner Henze’s updating of Manon’s story - Boulevard Solitude.

Reviewed by Hilary Glover
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