Adina Nitescu (Manon Lescaut), Sarah Connolly (Musician), Patrick Denniston (Chevalier des Grieux), Antonello Palombo (Edmondo), Christopher Lemmings (Dancing Master), Roberto de Candia (Lescaut), Michael Hart-David (Lamplighter), Paolo Montarsolo (Geronte de Ravoir), Richard Mosley-Evans (Innkeeper/Naval Captain), Kevin Sharp (Sergeant of Archers)
London Philharmonic Orchestra, The Glyndebourne Chorus c. John Eliot Gardiner, p. Graham Vick d. Richard Hudson video director Humphrey Burton
Warner Music Division 50-51442-0489-2-6 (125 minutes)
The combination of John Eliot Gardiner and Puccini is likely to raise eyebrows, and while his is an unconventional view of this score, and not to all tastes, it is in fact the most notable aspect of this Glyndebourne performance from 1997. Puccini’s first success is a musical explosion, the exuberance of the invention masking the fact that the assimilations of Wagner and the French style are not yet fully integrated into his immediately identifiable style: Gardiner’s scintillating rhythmic approach and clarity reveal untold details, while keeping a rein on the more indulgent and possibly cloying aspects. It would be interesting to hear his take on late Puccini, such as Fanciulla or Turandot.
That said, Manon Lescaut is a problematic work for performers and director, and the many inconsistencies of Puccini’s vision are not really coped with here. Though Massenet may never have attained the compositional splendour of Puccini, his Manon of 1884 is a cogent theatrical experience with context and depth of characterization. Puccini writing on the heels of this very big hit just nine years later, was anxious to avoid duplication – and in doing so reduces the character of Manon to one of his ‘little women’. The opening of Massenet’s opera skilfully shows us the milieu that Manon will operate in, as well as portraying a bustling transport hub – Puccini’s consists of a student and some hangers-on uttering inanities about love. Puccini’s Manon is not musically established as a young girl exploding with joie de vivre, pulled between glamour and passion: instead Puccini simpers at her as if she were a dummy run for Mimi – and her sudden passion in Act 2 for finery seems tacked on as an afterthought. Graham Vick does attempt to thread this into Act 1 with a fleeting image of fine ladies and a covetous look from Manon, but Adina Nitescu is not an accomplished enough actress to fill in where the music does not go. Her pleasing timbre, with a tinge of Claudia Muzio’s morbidezza, and full command of the technical hurdles of the role are assets, but she is a placid performer, deficient in temperament and nuance. Patrick Denniston as her lover is similar: heroic timbre and no sense of strain, but no ardour either – together, fatally for the drama, they lack chemistry. You only have to turn to the Metropolitan Opera version of 1980 (on DVD) to see what is lacking: Renata Scotto and Plácido Domingo live their roles to the hilt, triumph over a hyper-fussy realist production, and turn the problematic last act in the Louisiana wilderness into an engulfing climax. Here, though the subsidiary characters are well directed and performed, the void at the centre is irredeemable. The design further saps the work of context and energy; minimalist in the extreme, stark earth-tone walls in various guises turn Amiens coach station (no hint of transport here) into Siesta-time in Seville, and Geronte’s luxurious love-nest, here reduced to a rumpled bed and mirror, would be better suited for the last act of Traviata, post- bailiff’s. Vick’s relationship with Glyndebourne has yielded many revelatory evenings, among them the big Tchaikovsky operas and an edgy Don Giovanni, yet here he seems tentative and unconvinced by the work in hand.
© Julian Grant 2008