REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on English Touring Opera, Manon Lescaut, York Theatre Royal, April 19

English Touring Operas in Manon Lescaut. Picture: Richard Hubert Smith

THE secret to this strange production lay in a programme note by its director, Jude Christian. Anyone who had not read it would have been floundering.

After a perfectly reasonable summary of the trials undergone by Manon, Ms Christian launched into an angry tirade about the perils facing young women today, including pornography, deep-fakes and treatment at the hands of police, along with a sweeping indictment of the place of women in opera. Much of it was undeniable, but almost completely irrelevant to the piece in hand.

Her anger led her to interpret Puccini’s first two acts as a “surreal nightmare”. The chorus here are in fancy dress at a poolside party, both designed by Charlotte Henery, with water coolers lined around the edge: all are camping it up to the utmost degree, prancing around like animals.

Manon joins them in a blue wig and inappropriately tight dress. “What do you think of my hair?” she asks her brother. “It’s a choice,” he replies. A terrible one.

Christian’s other indiscretion is to list herself as librettist. Presumably this is meant to excuse her paraphrase – not a translation – of Luigi Illica’s original (although he gets no mention anywhere).

The net effect of these hijinks is to hijack Puccini and present us with a comedy, or at least extreme parody, which has exactly the reverse effect to the one intended. How can one take this Manon’s trials seriously, let alone as a reflection of modern woman’s predicament?

Fortunately, the second half is a little more to the point. A young woman (Manon’s alter ego, perhaps) is asleep at her desk and wakes up slowly, reminding us that it’s all been a dream. Manon’s downhill slide thereafter seems inevitable, given that the two men she has had to choose between are obviously unsuitable.

Des Grieux who arrived in a white suit riding a dolphin, with a fuzzy wig, is far too self-interested to be much use in the long term. Geronte, clad in pink, with a gigantic sombrero, is a figure of fun from the start, even if he offers her wealth.

After their voyage, Manon and Des Grieux find themselves in a desert where he is unable to find water. She dies of thirst. Hence, we now realise, the water in abundance at the start: her life has been prolonged irony.

There are plenty of redeeming features in the music. Jenny Stafford’s game Manon never lets up, if occasionally underpowered. Gareth Dafydd Morris as Des Grieux sports an unfailingly resonant tenor that he could use more subtly. But they are never quite on the same wavelength. Edward Jones’s bass lends gravitas to Geronte, despite the director’s apparent intentions.

Adrian Edwards is a happy-go-lucky Lescaut in a French beret, with a baritone ideally suited for English song. Brendon Spiteri leads the choral capers well as Edmondo.

But the heroes of the hour are the orchestra, conducted with confidence and vigour by Gerry Cornelius, who sustains a lively momentum. His woodwinds are exceptionally crisp.

It is just a pity that the director allows righteous anger to rule her emotions and feels the need to steer so clear of what the opera is really about.

English Touring Opera’s Manon Lescaut is on tour until May 27.

Review by Martin Dreyer