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Puccini, Manon Lescaut. Soloists / Opera Holland Park / John Gibbons (cond).  Holland Park, London. 15.06.06 (ED)

 

Manon Lescaut proved something of a success for Puccini, who was not in the least deterred from composing it by other composers’ settings of the same story. It shows his creative powers and modes of musical expression still in their formative stages, but there are enough pointers towards his mature style in place to make it a highly enjoyable and popular work. Opera Holland Park for some years now has been gathering a reputation for their innovative staging of verisimo operas in particular and this production can be added to their list of successes.

 

With the stage and auditorium housed under an off-white tensile fabric awning a feeling of spaciousness was created, indeed the airiness was most welcome on this pleasantly warm evening.Bob Bailey’s use of simple stage flats, consisting solely of plain hangings, helped to bring the action before the audience with a rare intimacy. Against the most minimal of settings the imagination of the audience was brought into play by filling in the gaps according to individual taste.  Props served to suggest what the actual objects might look like: tables and chairs, etc., wrapped in white cloth so as not to overly prescribe a specific style. Against this the opulence of the period costumes had all the more impact; importantly so, as they were carefully chosen to follow the fortunes of the characters.

 

John Gibbons led an account of the work (employing a reduced scoring) that was never lacking in forward momentum, even if occasionally his choice of tempi strayed towards the routine. But I do not think much else could have been done at such moments: Puccini’s sense of pacing and rhythmic inflection had not yet acquired the suppleness that imbues later works. The City of London Sinfonia played with commitment, though given the outdoor setting perhaps they felt the need to sacrifice some refinement for the sake of sheer projection. Particularly bright violins dominated to begin with, although greater depths to the sonorities emerged as the work progressed. Likewise the OHP Chorus, well drilled they undoubtedly were, grew in confidence – even if they looked much too well scrubbed and well bred for your average crowd of tavern revellers.

 

Where the soloists were concerned several strong performances were to be heard. Sean Raune made an ardent and youthful Des Grieux, if he was occasionally apt to over-sing the part a touch. There was no denying his generosity of tone, which rang forth with a convincingly Italianate ease. The contrast with Lynton Black’s delightful dandy-grown-old Geronte could hardly have been more marked, either through acting or vocal presence. His bearing endowed the character with ample fullness and his voice gave it a thinly veiled lecherousness that made Geronte most repugnant, particularly in earlier scenes. Simon Thorpe’s Lescaut was given with confidence, as indeed were many of the lesser roles. Todd Wilander’s Dancing Master proved just what was needed in characterisation: condescending and hectoring to the last curl of his powdered wig.

  

There is no doubt that the evening’s most convincing portrayal came from Amanda Echalaz. Her understanding of Manon’s unfolding personal drama was boldly acted and every bit as engagingly sung. Act I saw Echalaz capture her naïve simplicity; Act II her frustrated haughtiness and relief at Des Grieux’ return. Act III saw Manon’s internal desolation made manifest, whilst Act IV completed the inevitable downward trajectory towards death most powerfully. Beauty in the voice, although her ‘aging’ of it lent much to her characterisation, was mirrored by slight yet discernable touches in her acting: facial expressions registered strongly.  For all Echalaz’ individual qualities though many of the most moving moments were those she shared with Raune’s Des Grieux. They allowed the best qualities in both singers, Gibbons’ conducting and Puccini’s luxurious heart on sleeve orchestration to emerge fully for all to enjoy.

 

 

Evan Dickerson


 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)