Manon Lescaut, Welsh National Opera, WNO, Cardiff, February 2014

Who is Manon? At the end of this production, Des Grieux’s confusion is represented by two identical versions of her on stage, elegantly dressed in black raincoat and high heels. The bleak plains of Louisiana are absent, replaced by what is a running theme in this staging — the modern world of airports and train stations.

All images, WNO/ Johan Persson

All images, WNO/ Johan Persson

At the start we see Des Grieux sleeping on a row of four seats, just as he ends up, in a soulless waiting area that suddenly sweeps miraculously to a world beyond. And though the text speaks of Manon being exhausted while he walks off and returns, the reversal of the situation can be taken to reflect the physical absence of any point of absolute rest — indeed the only reality is time, represented by a digital clock that races forward at various points, as scenes change.

First meeting

First meeting

But if this co-production with La Monnaie in Brussels — first shown there in January 2013 — is unusual, the music is pure Puccini, the fecundity of his creative talents beautifully expressed through the conducting of Lothar Koenigs. The chorus was magnificent as always, and Gwyn Hughes Jones sang with glorious tone and phrasing as Des Grieux. In his duets with Chiara Taigi as Manon the performance swept into realms of emotional expressiveness, and her beauty and seductiveness were one of the joys of this production.

Manon

Manon

The staging of a heartless world was particularly striking in the portrayal of Geronte as a sadistic oligarch with a nasty side-kick whose penchant for using golf irons as threatening weapons comes to the point in Act III where, in his role as assistant to the Naval Captain, he even clobbers Des Grieux round the head with one. Stephen Richardson gave a suitably unpleasant impression of Geronte and his reincarnation as the Naval Captain, though he was a little underpowered at times, as was David Kempster as Manon’s brother Lescaut.

In Act I of this production by Mariusz Treliński with its set designs by Boris Kudlička, Des Grieux is an office worker in a big city shown in video projections through the windows of the transportation centre, and his friend Edmondo, superbly sung by Simon Crosby Buttle was some sort of janitor. It is bleak staging, and I am intrigued to see how it will fit with their new production of Henze’s Boulevard Solitude, but in the meantime this ravishing score by Puccini was given a glorious rendering by the orchestra under Lothar Koenigs’ direction, with great performances by the two main singers.

Performances at Cardiff continue until Feb 27, after which it transfers to the Birmingham Hippodrome, 5–7 Mar; Milton Keynes Theatre 12–14 Mar; Mayflower Theatre, Southampton 19–21 Mar; Theatre Royal, Plymouth 26–28 Mar; Venue Cymru, Llandudno 2–4 Apr; The Bristol Hippodrome 11 Apr; Olavinlinna Castle, Savonlinna, Finland 30 Jul – 1 Aug. For details click here.

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