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Manon Lescaut

Giacomo Puccini
Opera North at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
(2004)

Manon publicity image

What a melodramatic piece Manon Lescaut is! The characters, the story and, of course, the music itself. From the moment that Des Grieux re-appears on the scene in Act II, emotion piles upon emotion and the music builds and builds....

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Opera North's Manon has been given a bit of a savaging by the critics because of the 40s film concept that director Daniel Slater has used, but it really isn't that bad: it just doesn't add anything - with the possible exception of the post interval Intermezzo which accompanies a piece of monochrome film showing Manon having her head shaved and then being branded with a swastika. It's a small but significant addition to the melodrama.

As for the rest, the opening scene shows us the preparations for shooting, with Edmondo becoming the director, complete with folding chair, and Des Grieux being the male star, fawned over by all the women in the set. For the rest of the first act we see the camera, on a dolly pushed by a member of the chorus, in action. The clapperboard is used fairly frequently. Des Grieux strides around reading his script. A boom mic swings into (and out of) action. And that's it: we see no more of the film conceit until the Intermezzo, after which it vanishes again until the very end when, after she dies, Manon and Des Grieux get up and leave the set. We are, one supposes, to take it that Acts II, III and (the majority of) IV, are the film.

A lot of effort for not a lot of effect, really.

Manon is eighteen, Des Grieux a student. In fact, in the original story, she is fifteen, he two years older. With all due respect to Natalia Dercho (Manon) and Hugh Smith (Des Grieux), neither comes close to looking their supposed age by at least a decade and a half, which does make suspending disbelief a little difficult.

Listening to them is a different matter. I was, at first, a little unsure about Smith - the opening scene did him no favours - but Donna non vidi mai changed all that and he impressed more and more as the piece progressed. Dercho, too, although occasionally just a little thin, delivered enormous passion. The end of Act II was very powerful, as was - inevitably - the opera's final scene.

I was much impressed, too, by Christopher Purves' singing as Lescaut, although it has to be said that, if Manon was eighteen, he looked more like her father than her brother.

In summary, musically excellent but, as a stage piece, rather flawed.

Plays at Newcastle again on 15th October, then on 19th and 21st at the Lowry, Salford Quays. It returns to the Leeds Grand on 3rd and 5th November, before playing on 9th and 11th at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan