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Work in progress

09/18/2000 -  and 22 (reviewed), 28, 30 September, 4,7, 9, 14, 17, 20, 25, 27 October, 3 November 2000
Giacomo Puccini: Manon Lescaut
Nina Stemme (Manon Lescaut), David Kempster (Lescaut), Chevalier des Grieux (Martin Thompson), Mark Richardson (Geronte de Revoir), John Graham-Hall (Edmondo)
ENO Chorus, ENO Orchestra

The autumn segment of the ENO‘s 2000-2001 season, a "celebration of Italian opera", includes a range of works, almost all new to the company, presented on a fixed set designed by Stephanos Lazaridis in productions that might be co-ordinated. (Opera North had a similar, shorter season last year, possibly also planned by Nicholas Payne.) Lazaridis’ set uses scaffolding to reshape the auditorium, as an allusion to the incipient rebuilding work and as a reminder that every production, and every genre and tradition, is always under construction.

It’s an ingenious mix of experiment and audience appeal. "Italian opera" should put fundaments in the stalls. But the most familiar works in the season are The coronation of Poppea and Nabucco, and some punters who buy tickets for La Bohème might be miffed to find that it is Leoncavallo’s.

Reassuringly, the season opens with Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, whose similarity to La Bohème should make up for its rarity and justify its extended run of performances. Of course it’s not particularly Italian, since it’s based on a French novel and is a deliberate negative of Massenet’s Manon (to the extent that there is no love scene between the hero and heroine, let alone the conversion in St Sulpice or the lovers’ garret). And it’s formally designed, going on symphonic, in a decidedly cerebral and German style.

Keith Warner‘s production, however, creates a perverse carnival world, with vaguely Venetian costumes, in which Edmondo, the student madrigalist, is a sinister stage manager of a commedia dell‘arte. Manon is a Lulu-ish Columbine, coquettish in response to abuse, and Geronte is pure Pantaloon. The chorus, looking down on the action from a platform that extends round the dress circle, is generally the cruel audience of the masquerade.

Making Edmondo into a pimp-director in the opening scene undermines our sense of Manon’s decline and corruption. Although dressed in blue as a Watteau shepherdess, she is already on display and implicitly up for sale in this first scene, which makes it less of a shock when her brother effectively sells her to Geronte, and the red dress that she wears for Geronte seems inevitable. But the whole setting is interestingly sleazy and disturbing, and highlights the misogyny of the plot itself, a woman destroyed so that des Grieux love and lose a slut according to the literary convention.

If the music isn‘t prime lush Puccini, Paul Daniel and the ENO orchestra kept it interesting and engaging throughout. The singers seemed less at ease, apart from John Graham-Hall, wonderfully disgusting in the synthetic, production-created role of the stage manager. David Kempster looked heavy enough but sounded perversely lyrical and attractive as Lescaut. Mark Richardson also looked the character but couldn’t make much of the cardboard cut-out Geronte. As the lovers, Nina Stemme and Martin Thompson had all the notes but didn’t generate much heat or sympathy. This wasn’t necessarily their fault. Manon Lescaut, like The rake’s progress, is probably too chilly to create sparks without a lot of effort.




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