OPERA - ESSAYS - MANON
|Manon Lescaut was a good-time
girl who never let herself have so much fun with her toy boy, Le
Chevalier Des Grieux, that she forgot that diamonds are for ever. Her
indulgences typified the Regency Court of the 1720s that provided the
Abbe Prevost with materials for his 1731 novel. In the early 1880s,
Jules Massenet set an insipid reading of this tale to a score which
meanders between hit numbers. The result was a pastiche of past styles
of composition while the characterisation chased after box-office
touches from Traviata, Carmen and Faust.
Hence, the task before any modern production is to trim the proceedings to retrieve Prevost's energic telling. Opera Australia managed neither. The night got off to a tedious start by retaining the pointless scene in which some of the minor characters demand their supper.
Ankara-based and Russian-born Elvira Fatykhova in the title role displayed all the vocal resources for its demands. She was sweet and touching in her regrets at abandoning the table where she and Des Grieux had snuggled together. The necessary girlishness was missing. Playfulness did not brighten her first weeks of sexual love to inform her letter-reading scene. The hit-tune of her aria in praise of youth was restrained, failing to effervese. Fatykhova did not share her understanding of whether Manon's pleasure-seeking is bubbly or calculated.
If Manon has too little character for it to develop, Des Grieux, at least, is supposed to grow up before our ears. Jorge Lopez-Yanez returned to Sydney as Des Grieux. Few tenors who could fill the role can be expected to retain the looks to convince as a teenage innocent, but stage-craft should have allowed him to tumble between excitement, rapture and bewilderment. Instead, Lopez-Yanez projected a middle-aged lover who is a chore to his youthful mistress. His singing repeated this discomfort, roaring when he should have soared, though he lightened up for his dream aria, when a nasal twang was less intrusive.
The pivotal moment in their relationship comes in the chapel when Manon entices Des Grieux from his ordination by reminding him of how her hand felt on his. Today, we can ask "on his what?" Although this production does not see Manon thrusting her hand into his pants, the scene does end with their falling onto each other in front of the altar, an appropriate realisation of Prevost's marriage of sex and religion. Here, at last, the evening caught hell's fire.
The production is blessed with a strong line of supports. Han Lim as Manon's cousin offered the dash needed by Des Griuex, his voice as enchanting as his manner. After the first interval, the general pall settled over his performance too, perhaps for fear of upstaging the principal. The lovers' asking him to calm down seemed pointless since he was already lolling over the furniture.
Christopher Dawes received the ultimate accolate for his achievement as the vindictive roue, Guillot de Mortonatine, by being hissed as a stage villian. John Pringle rose above a costume which made him appear as the Mayor of Las Vegas to establish Manon's first protector, De Bretigny, as a man of the world. Richard Alexander convinced from the first instant in the brief role as innkeeper, and Conal Coad sounded dignified as Des Grieux pere. As three amusers, Ali McGregor, Sally McHugh and Deborah Humble were all froth and fickleness.
Designer Roger Kirk brought off some neat scene changes, notably the transformation of the street arches into the nave of St Suplice. For most of the show, the settngs attempted to recreate 1720s Paris. The final scene escaped this fake naturalism into a backdrop of devastation which did far more to establish the mood of Manon's fate than the acres of red plush and a cheap chandelier could evoke the profligacy of those times. The lighting by Trudy Dalgleish was spot on.
In allowing himself deep stages on whch to work, director Stuart Maunder demonstrated that space will expose a want of detailing more readily than it ensures intelligent choreography. The holiday scene on the Cours-la-Reine in Act III looked as if the chorus were waiting for their first rehearsal, rather than bustling. The gaming house in Act IV pushed everyone towards the pit so that the dancing women kept blocking the view of the card game beween Guillot and Des Grieux that is moving towards the blow that will separate the lovers for ever. The orchestra under French conductor Emmanuel Joel had neither helped nor hindered the cast to reach that overdue denouement.