Manon Lescaut review – Puccini updated to the swinging 60s

Opera Holland Park, London
Elizabeth Llewellyn is an exciting voice, but Karolina Sofulak’s uneven new production doesn’t quiet set the pulse racing

Is Manon Lescaut, Puccini’s material girl, worth the tears his music so brazenly solicits, or is this damsel’s distress self-inflicted? Karolina Sofulak’s new production, which gets Opera Holland Park’s summer season off to an uneven start, makes it even harder than usual to decide.

Designed by George Johnson-Leigh, the story is updated to the swinging 60s – all beehives and turtlenecks – which is at odds with the 18th-century story. Manon and Des Grieux meet at a nightclub; he is less a dashing student than a school-gate dad who has reluctantly gone to a fancy-dress party as the Milk Tray Man. In act three, we return to the club, with Manon imprisoned as a sex slave in a glamorous gown; the parade of her fellows provides a hard-hitting surprise. But how can this club’s clientele be threatening – they don’t even know how to play Twister properly! Maybe the point is that depravity is found in places that look ordinary. If so, this Manon seems oddly unwilling to escape it.

Elizabeth Llewellyn has an exciting voice for Puccini, silvery and vital. We were told she was singing the title role despite recovering this week from laryngitis. It was understandable that she seemed to be holding back, but also frustrating, however skilfully Peter Robinson’s orchestra tiptoed around her. The final act brought more power, and a tantalising glimpse of what this fine singer might offer later in the run. Peter Auty’s Des Grieux, meanwhile, was solidly sung, Paul Carey Jones’s Lescaut winningly confident and Stephen Richardson made for a suave Geronte. The City of London Sinfonia’s palette, however, is limited, and this isn’t quite yet a show to set the pulse racing.

• At Opera Holland Park, London, until 26 June.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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