Like Wagner and Respighi, Puccini was very fussy about every facet of the production of his operas. If he had seen what Flemish Opera had done with his first major success he would probably have had a fit! Now, I will admit, at once, that when it comes to "clever, clever" opera productions my tolerance level is low. I refused, for instance, to review a recent production of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde in which the leads cavorted around a sofa. In this Manon Lescaut, there are too many absurdities: ladies wear models of ships atop of their impossibly tall and intricate coiffures in the scene where Manon is shipped off to America; worse, in the same scene, Manon's fellow prostitutes parade like zombies in rich voluminous and spotless gowns. Worse yet, the final act desert setting, full of junk, yes junk, makes Steptoe's yard look like the Queen's drawing room!
The liberties with the original concept begin with the opening of Act I with the entry of high-spirited Edmondo and his fellow students all heavily disguised in carnival costumes, carrying colourful umbrellas. Edmondo hides behind a clown's mask by the way. Now this idea, perhaps, might be regarded as imaginative and just about acceptable but not when this same clown appears in Act III as the lamplighter! The Act I set is a backdrop of passing clouds with a door opening out onto the courtyard of the inn that is the staging post for the coach from Arras. Most productions are content to have the coach appear off-stage. Not this one, no expense is spared in having it roll on behind inanimate horses on gigantic castors. It appears again at the close of Act II when Manon tries to escape the clutches of Di Ravoir. As the arresting officers grab her as she tries to enter coach, a veritable sea of jewels that she has presumably gathered before her flight, implausibly cascades out. I could go on quoting such inanities.
To the cast. The acting is below par, sometimes gruesomely
so. As when, for instance, Ordonez (looking as though he is old enough
to be Manon's father) throws himself at Manon's feet in supplication
after she has won him round again in Act II - it is just too embarrassing
to watch. So, too, is much of Manon's death scene in Act IV. The witty
irony and beauty of the minuet and 'L'oro, o Tirsi, è vaga e
bella' in Act II is practically lost on this cast. Bastin's di Ravoir
is too grotesque, he is so immensely fat, you simply cannot feel any
sympathy for him; you can't laugh at him or be shaken by his malice.
Can one really imagine Manon jumping from the frying pan into this inferno?
And the singing? Ordonez's pitch is sometimes a bit insecure; he wavers
and then shoots skyward like an out of control rocket. Manon has control
but not enough dramatic expression. Only Danckaert's Lescaut seems fitting
and at all impressive.
What a relief to return to the alternative video production
of Manon Lescaut that I have already
reviewed on this site - the 1997 Glyndebourne Festival Opera production
conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (NVC Arts/Warner Music Division 0630-18647-3).
It starred a young virile Patrick Deniston as Des Grieux, a feisty (if
a little plump) Adina Nitescu as Manon and Paolo Montarsola's Geronte
di Ravoir is altogether a more realistic and dignified old rué.
The sets may have been frugal in comparison with the Flemish production
(seemingly all mirrors for much of the time) but the drama and musicality
of this production (directed for TV by Humphrey Burton) was far more
A dire example of what was probably a sizeable budget wasted on a miserable production. Avoid.