Manon Lescaut

Blog #1

It was great to be in the Millennium Centre Cardiff’s Opera House again last weekend. I really like the building, but had forgotten just how colourful the actual auditorium space is when you get in. And to watch top quality opera at Cardiff prices helps the enjoyment no end!


We were there for Manon Lescaut, the opera that made Puccini’s reputation, and being performed alongside Boulevard Solitude and La Traviata as part of the WNO’s ‘Fallen Women’ series. Although very popular, it is not an opera I knew, so I was looking forward to the performance.


The production was a modern take on the opera. While Puccini had his characters awaiting a coach in a pub, this was set in a ticket hall of a station/airport. The hyperactive back projection kept us captured in an almost never ending tempo of travel and movement. Manon appears, in scarlet smoking and wearing designer shades. All very visually exciting, but what on earth was going on?


I am not at all against modern productions, but translating the action to another period, which must inevitably lead to losing some aspects of the original, must aid understanding or draw interesting parallels with modern times or in some way enhance the story. The problem with Mariusz Trelinski’s Manon was that far from adding to the audience’s understanding it completely confused us. It is not a good sign surely when everyone on the way out is asking each other what on earth was happening. This is hardly difficult opera, yet everyone was stumped. For instance, at one point a mannequin is bought on to dance with an unnamed character.... Why? If Manon is really an innocent on her way to a nunnery, why dress her as a vamp? But clearly the director likes a bit of female flesh. To help us understand that Geronte is a licentious and ‘bad’ character, he has two of the chorus crawl around the stage in leather underwear, wearing dog leads. Later, when in prison, the female prisoners wearing very little, teeter around on imaginary ropes being ogled by a group of men who vote their preferences. But perhaps the biggest problem is that the final scene, the tear-jerking operatic finale with the heroine dying, exhausted in the desert, which is carried out in an empty ticket hall with multiple versions of Manon appearing. It was this finale, confusing rather heart-rending, which led to our companions in the lift at the end asking what actually happened. The tragedy here was that there was barely a damp eye in the house.


I entirely understand the desire of directors to re-imagine popular, standard classics. Last year’s Othello at the National Theatre was a classic example, where by setting the play in Afghanistan I at least for the first time understood the military aspect of the play. Of course you lose something, but I felt my understanding of the play enhanced by the setting. Here, sadly, the director has simply got it wrong.


But it is opera, so you can close your eyes and simply listen to the singing. The orchestra, conducted by Lothar Koenigs was spot on, and the principal leads, Gwyn Hughes Jones and Chiara Taigi, were excellent to my ear, with the supporting cast strong and highly competent.


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