Friday 16 February 2024

As Puccini's Manon Lescaut opens English Touring Opera's Spring tour, I chat to soprano Jenny Stafford who sings the title role in Jude Christian's new production

Photo by soprano Julia Mariko before the sitzprobe for ETO's production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut
Photo by soprano Julia Mariko before the sitzprobe
for ETO's production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut 
via Twitter
English Touring Opera's Spring 2024 season opens at the Hackney Empire on 24 February 2024 with Puccini's Manon Lescaut, followed by Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress on 2 March, and the tour continues across England until 28 May. The tour also features a new family opera by Omar Shahryar and Hannah Khalil, The Great Stink.

The new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut is directed by Jude Christian (who directed Tom Coult's debut opera Violet at Aldeburgh Festival in 2022) and conducted by Gerry Cornelius, with Jenny Stafford as Manon, Gareth Dafydd Morris as Des Grieux and Aidan Edwards at Lescaut. I recently caught up with Jenny Stafford in a gap in rehearsals to chat about Manon and Puccini.

When we chat, Jenny has been in rehearsals for just over two weeks and feels that they are 'whizzing through it', something she appreciates. Working through the piece at speed and then coming back to add more detail is great for the singers, she feels. 

She had no prior exposure to the opera, except for knowing the duet, but when she learned the music for the audition she found that she really wanted to do it. Jenny is having something of a Puccini year, she covered Magda in La Rondine at Opera North [see my review of the production] and will be singing the title role in Suor Angelica with West Green Opera this Summer. These are two roles that she has never done before, and she is enjoying being involved in music of such heart and soul.

This concentration on the composer is a mix of happenstance and deliberate choice. She loves singing Puccini, enjoying the way he brings out the sound of the emotion in the music, and his music makes her cry. She knows La Boheme well and adds that she would happily sing La Boheme for ever! She is also fascinated how you can hear that opera in Manon Lescaut; Manon Lescaut was his first big success in 1893 and La Boheme followed in 1896.

The heroine in Manon Lescaut can often feel as if she goes through the opera being forced into things, but Jenny is enjoying the way that director Jude Christian giving Manon more of a sense of choice, that she chooses to do things. It is her decision to not go into the convent but to run away with Des Grieux. This Manon has a lot more guts than it might seem just from reading the synopsis. That said, of course, it is still a very sad opera. 

During the audition for Manon Lescaut, Jude Christian directed Jenny a bit and the way that Jude explained Manon's feelings was completely different to how Jenny had thought. She comments that it was her sort of audition, much more like a workshop. 

In Manon Lescaut, Jenny will be singing alongside Gareth Dafydd Morris as Des Grieux. She and Gareth have known each other a long time, as far back as the time they would singing little sections of La Traviata together in pubs to advertise Perroni. They worked together last year and so it is nice to work with an old friend again. Jenny also knows other singers in the tour, having worked last year with Nazan Fikret (who sings Anne Trulove in Stravinsky's The Rakes Progress), so it feels like working with a bunch of friends.

They will be doing 19 performances of Manon Lescaut all told, with a whole variety of venues. The length of the tour means that conductor Gerry Cornelius feels that they will be able to take some risks with the dynamics, showing the vulnerable side to the characters.

Jenny has a long experience with English Touring Opera, she started off in the chorus in 2019, also covering the title role in Rossini's Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra and she went on to sing Despina in Cosi fan tutte in 2020, a production whose run was cruelly cut short. More recently she was Musetta in La Boheme and Melissa in Handel's Ottone [see my review].

Of course, singing with the company means touring. During her first season in 2019 she enjoyed the touring and the camaraderie on and off stage, but for her next tour she was pregnant and found that though she enjoyed it, she lacked energy. This year she has a little one to think about as well, and plans to take him along with her to some performances.  Jenny's husband is also a singer, and she comments that they sing to her son a lot!

English Touring Opera's new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut is directed by Jude Christian, conducted by Gerry Cornelius, with Jenny Stafford as Manon, Gareth Dafydd Morris as Des Grieux, Aidan Edwards as Lescaut and Edward Hawkins as Geronte. Opening at Hackney Empire on 24 February [further details]. Stravinsky's The Rakes Progress will be directed by Polly Graham, conducted by Jack Sheen with Nazan Fikret as Anne Trulove, Frederick Jones as Tom Rakewell, Jerome Knox as Nick Shadow, Trevor Eliot Bowes as Father Trulove and Lauren Young as Baba. Opening at Hackney Empire on 2 March [further details]

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