Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre, Sat 8 Feb
An odd mixture of contemporary design, riskily explorative action and stunning, traditional composition, Treliński’s Manon Lescaut is a confused re-production of Puccini’s first breakthrough hit.
The first of three operas that form WNOs Fallen Women series, Manon Lescaut could be best viewed through a feminist’s glasses. The objectification and degradation of Manon and her fellow ‘courtesans’, controlled under the whip (or, in this case, golf club) of Geronte and his Sergeant, the experimental, risqué simulations of sex slaves in action, symbolic life-sized dolls treated and moulded by her masters, and vulgar displays of sexual forwardness from those imprisoned for trafficking, are at once intriguing and repulsive, but is so ‘busy’ that you’re left feeling you missed the point.
Manon uses her sexuality to get what she wants, but is ultimately at the mercy of her facile desires: infatuation and wealth. Chiara Taigi plays it fake from the outset – uncomfortable as the coquettish seducer, she is “free” in her palace of wealth and great make up – again, a fake freedom, a fake version of the woman, as her freedom is bought with her body and kept in check with a drug addiction. By contrast, Grieux is ‘true’ in his passion for the Manon he found in act one, and driven throughout only by his love for her, however jaded they become. He is dragged around the story by Manon, her brother Lescaut, and Geronte, the powerhouse.
The design, created by Boris Kulička, Bartek Macias and Felice Ross makes this production visually stunning and diverse, the creation of a tube station immaculately perceived and brought to life through sound and lighting, the backdrop video projection of eerie cityscapes and Vogue-worthy beauty shots added unexpected layers to this bizarre reworking. The music, expertly conducted by Lothar Koenig, is perfect and sung with raw abandon by Taigi and fluidity by Gwyn Hughes Jones. The Chorus are excellent, in song and choreography. David Kempster’s Lescaut and Stephen Richardson’s Geronte were both stolid, lacking in complexity – a blessing, with such experimental direction taking up thinking time. Light relief was brought by Monika Sawa and her nymphet group of singers and, more regularly, through Simon Crosby Buttle’s portrayal of beanie and baggie jeans sporting Edmondo. It is he who encourages des Grieux to pursue and flee with Manon, helping to create the messy life that he will inevitably have to clean up after the curtain falls on our ruined male protagonist’s life of courting the unattainable, untameable modern whore.
Close your eyes and you could imagine yourself at a traditional opera that wasn’t trying to do something different with an archaic portrayal of women. Open them for a challenging, if busy, visual feast.
words HARRIET HOPKINS photo JOHAN PERSSON