Manon Lescaut, the opening production in Opera Holland Park’s 2019 season, is just as notable for how it came about as for what happens onstage. The director Karolina Sofulak and designer George Johnson-Leigh were awarded joint first place in the tenth European Opera prize, which saw creative teams from thirty-two countries submit concepts and designs for the opera to a panel of judges. The pair were selected to work their submission up into a full production at Holland Park, with the other winning team of Gerald Jones and Cécile Trémolières being offered the chance to present their own version at the Staatsoper Mainz.
Johnson-Leigh’s set contrasts the decadent way of life associated with Manon’s fickle side with the earthy existence, but genuine love, that des Grieux provides by setting an eighteenth century interior next to a brick wall. This approach would seem to go hand in hand with the decision to set the action in the 1960s. This is because both the ‘classical’ and brick sections of the stage depict Act I’s inn, or in this case bar, suggesting how a building with a long history has evolved for every age. In the same way that the architecture bridges eras so the decade might be seen as a time when traditional and revolutionary values clashed. In this way, it is plausible, although perhaps only just, that a young woman might be being taken to a convent, and highly believable that, when put in that position, she would be extremely opposed to the idea.
Placing the action in this era, and entirely inside the inn for Act I, has a few consequences. No carriage to transport Manon is ever seen, and it seems entirely appropriate that in the 1960s she would immediately enter the bar. However, when Manon and des Grieux flee at the end of the act they simply exit the stage on foot, which feels lame as it misses much of the irony in them thwarting Geronte’s plan by escaping in the carriage that he had arranged for himself, even if the words they sing give away what has happened. Similarly, although ‘Un asso – un fante’ (an ace, a jack) are sung as normal, Act I is dominated far more by a game of twister than by any cards. This may seem an innocuous enough change, but when we learn in Act II that Lescaut has been teaching Des Grieux how to win at cards, it feels as if it comes out of the blue because the card playing culture has not been sufficiently established.
Other changes work better, and in Act II there is no problem in dressing the madrigal singers as a sixties girl band, or making Manon’s dancing lesson more about the accompanying photo shoot. Act III is also effective as the roll call of other deportees becomes a virtual ‘dream sequence’ as a whole cast of Manons parade, all wearing the same dress while showing her in different ways, as two look very young and one is pregnant. The transition to Act IV in the desert is also very smooth, as it simply sees Manon and des Grieux move from being at the heart of the deportation scene to becoming two lone figures in front of the brick wall. By now posters of Manon appear on it, as if films are being made about her, but the image of her in them is so different to the reality it is as if others have turned her into something she is not.
If, however, the aim is to emphasise how ‘Manon’s foibles are human’ and ‘her only crime is expediency’, one cannot help feeling that the production’s attempts to show her in a favourable light sometimes backfire. When Manon misses escaping at the end of Act II, she is found simply lying on her bed rather than looking as if she was only a second away from being out of the door. In showing, however, that material possessions weigh her down to such an extent that she seemingly had little intention of even trying to escape their clutches, it makes us feel less sympathetic towards her. A by-product of the approach is that in the final bars it is only des Grieux of the two of them who is running about, which feels underwhelming for such a key moment of drama.
In the same way, the ending does not see Manon and des Grieux locked in any kind of embrace, but rather has her standing beneath a lamppost at a distance as he sorrowfully clutches a garment and gazes in the opposite direction. This connects with the idea of her dying, and hence going towards the light, as well as the fact that by the end she is too weak to hear what he is saying. It does not, however, tie in with her words as she asks him to be close and to kiss her, or generate sufficient chemistry between them to enable us to invest so much emotionally in what we see.
Nevertheless, one cannot help but admire the ambition of the concept, or the strength of the performances. Elizabeth Llewellyn very much embraces the character of Manon as her soprano feels rich, impassioned and relatively dark. As des Grieux, Peter Auty asserts a brilliantly powerful and expansive tenor, and if his top lines feel just a little weaker when they should really overwhelm us, this should not detract from the overall quality of his performance. Paul Carey Jones, with his extremely secure baritone and acutely observed gestures, is a highly effective Lescaut, while the City of London Sinfonia, under the baton of Peter Robinson, is on fine form, with the rendering of the Intermezzo proving particularly persuasive.
Opera Holland Park’s 2019 season continues until 3 August (with a series of films then running at the venue from 7 to 9 August). For full details and tickets visit the Opera Holland Park website.