Thursday 6 June 2019

Opera Holland Park opens its 2019 season with a striking new Manon Lescaut directed by award-winning Karolina Sofulak

Puccini: Manon Lescaut - Elizabeth Llewellyn, Peter Auty - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini: Manon Lescaut Act 2 - Elizabeth Llewellyn, Peter Auty - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini Manon Lescaut; Elizabeth Llewellyn, Peter Auty, Paul Carey Jones, Stephen Richardson, dir: Karolina Sofulak, City of London Sinfonia, cond: Peter Robinson; Opera Holland Park Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 June 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A sophisticated and intelligent updating, presented with impulsive passion

Puccini: Manon Lescaut - Paul Carey Jones - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini: Manon Lescaut Act 2 - Paul Carey Jones
Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
I have to confess that I have never really found the character of Manon very fascinating in any of her incarnations (novel, opera by Massenet, opera by Puccini or ballet by Kenneth MacMillan). For any performance, I rely very much on the particular artists to create a reason for me to continue watching. Puccini's opera, with its compressed dramaturgy, remains a somewhat strange beast. Despite being his first major work, the piece has never achieved the sort of performance level that his other pieces have.

So, it was all the more intriguing to find Opera Holland Park opening its 2019 season on 4 June 2019 with Puccini's Manon Lescaut with a pair of extremely fine artists, Elizabeth Llewellyn and Peter Auty, as Manon and Des Grieux, in a production by a director, Karolina Sofulak, who won the European Opera Directing Prize in 2018 (with designer George Johnson-Leigh) with the concept on which this production was based! The cast was completed by Paul Carey Jones as Lescaut, Stephen Richardson as Geronte, and Stephen Aviss as Edmondo. Peter Robinson conducted the City of London Sinfonia.

Sofulak and Johnson-Leigh set the opera in the early 1960s, and Act One opened in a club frequented by trendy young things. It became apparent that Geronte (Stephen Richardson) was not a visitor but the shady owner of the club. At first, it seemed that Sofulak's approach, give or take the setting, was quite traditional but then at the end of Act Two there were no guards, just Geronte and his heavy (Alistair Sutherland), and in Act Three we were back in the club, with Manon (Elizabeth Llewellyn) and other women, Shadow Manons, being looked over by Geronte and the club members (the solo roles in this act being combined up with those of Geronte, Innkeeper and Edmondo). Then in Act Four the action became even more metaphysical, about the fractures in the relationship between Manon and Des Grieux (Peter Auty) rather than a real desert.

The result was a sophisticated and intelligent updating, which cast new light on the piece without doing violence to Puccini's original dramaturgy. It made economic sense too, with the just one flexible set and the removal of the need to have separate soloists in Act Three.

Puccini: Manon Lescaut - Paul Carey Jones, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Stephen Richardson  - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini: Manon Lescaut Act 1 - Paul Carey Jones, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Stephen Richardson
Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)

Any performance of Manon is going to require a degree suspension of disbelief, Puccini presents us with a pair of impulsive teenage protagonists yet writes music which can really only be sung by mature voices. In Act One, Elizabeth Llewellyn found the right degree of nice girl demureness, suggesting someone ripe for rebelling against her upbringing. And the club provided just the right place, with the gaming tables replaced by a crazy game of Twister. In Act Two she was fully blossomed into a butterfly, complete with strange tunic/dress which stretched the bounds of good taste. This Manon liked good things, but was restless too, and in Act Three there was a suggestion of her colluding with Geronte in her fate, that Des Grieux intense, insistent passion was not all she wanted. By Act Four, Llewellyn's Manon was powerfully resigned, there seemed an element of deliberate choice, and we last see her, not dead, but stood under a lamp. Independent, perhaps, for the first time in her life.

Llewellyn is moving into more spinto roles, and she was effortless in the role's demands, producing some wonderfully shaped phrases. She had been announced as having been ill, with her presence at the performance in doubt, but in the event she gave us a truly remarkable performance. Key to it was the series of rapturous duets with Peter Auty's Des Grieux, and it is in this music that Puccini's opera comes alive. The two artists really caught fire, and having mature singers in the roles counts a lot here so that both Llewellyn and Auty were fully equal to Puccini's demands, really making time stand still. Manon's other major relationship is with her brother, and here Llewellyn and Paul Carey Jones' charming but disreputable Lescaut developed the convincing level of banter and bickering, providing a nice counterpoint to the intensity of the love duets.

Des Grieux was played as rather a self-absorbed poet, his first utterances being reading poems back to the crowd in the pub. Peter Auty brought this off creditably, making Des Grieux's self-absorbed naivety completely believable. It helped that Auty was able to bring plenty of robustly phrased, Italianate tone, making Des Grieux a real pleasure to listen to. As the metaphysical drama of the second half developed, Des Grieux's passion intensified as his distance from Manon increased.

Puccini: Manon Lescaut - Elizabeth Llewellyn - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini: Manon Lescaut Act 3 - Elizabeth Llewellyn - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Paul Carey Jones was a complete delight as a discreetly gay Lescaut (not so discreet when alone with his sister), and Carey Jones made what can be rather a vicious role into something of a charmer. Stephen Richardson brought a sense of effortless power to his role as the big man, Geronte, doing dodgy deals in the background and regarding Manon as his right. What he also achieved was a sense of the way this power gave the man an attractiveness which explained the pull between him and Manon.

The smaller roles were well taken, Stephen Aviss was delightful as Edmondo with his lyrical song in Act One, here the bartender of the club and expanded into Act Three. Alistair Sutherland was a wonderfully brooding presence as Geronte's heavy. The madrigal singers, here of course a girl group, Ellie Edmonds, Hannah Boxall, Susie Buckle, Lara Rebekah Harvery and Ayaka Tanimoto, provided a nicely lighter moment in Act Two.

There was plenty for the chorus to do in this production, and they entered with a will into Sofulak's 1960s concept complete with plenty of dodgy dancing and those games of Twister. These scenes successfully captured the sense of intoxicating freedom which tempted the sheltered Manon, yet also there was a threatening edge to Tim Claydon's choreography, moments when the crowd turned nasty. And this, of course, developed right into Act Three when they were jeering and judging Manon.

Peter Robinson conducted the City of London Sinfonia in a reduced version of Puccini's score, though reduced in this context still means double woodwind and two horns, two trumpets and two trombones, which was plenty for a theatre without a pit. We still got plenty of luxuriant tone, with those melodies propelling the drama along, and the Intermezzo forming the emotional heart of the piece.

Puccini: Manon Lescaut - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini: Manon Lescaut Act 1 - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Manon Lescaut lacks the sophisticated compression of Puccini's La Boheme, and the struggle the composer had with the libretto and his multiple librettists does rather show. The first half is over long, and you feel that Act Two in particular could do with a little pruning. But Sofulak's production gave an interesting new slant to the action, successfully moving it away from its period element. The results were full of impulse, drama and passion thanks to fine performances from Peter Robinson and the cast.

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