After two comedies, The Grange Festival perhaps decided that a surfeit of laughter is not, after all, good for the health – we are of course all so health conscious these days – and so having had inveigled the festival patrons into dropping their guard, Michael Chance and his team at The Grange deliver a blow to the solar plexus of devastating force with Puccini’s first big success, Manon Lescaut.

Kamil Bien (Edmondo), Stephen Richardson (Geronte), Elin Pritchard and Nicholas Lester (Lescaut)
© Simon Annand

Stephen Lawless’ production has plenty of ideas, some of which work well, but there are one or two conceits that force a degree of head-scratching. Lawless updates the setting from the mid-1700s to the 1940s which is made abundantly clear to the audience not just via the context of the set, but by projections of contemporary footage (and several newspaper front pages) onto the curtain. There are a few obvious benefits to this: the idea of Geronte as a Nazi collaborator, for example, gives the villain of the piece an additional coat of malice, while the roll call of prisoners sees bleak misery as courtesans enter one door, defiant, and emerge shaven-headed, almost stunned as they face being loaded into the back of a lorry. Where Lawless seems to miss the mark is in Act 1 which takes place in a schoolroom, which somehow seems to have a restaurant and a garage attached to it. This is a tragic opera and yet the sight of adults wandering around in shorts, long socks and sandals is irrepressibly comic. We know Des Grieux and co are young students, but surely not quite that young! Geronte arrives on set in a rather smart car with a young Manon in schoolgirl clothes in the back seat. Again, has he brought her to school only to attempt to abduct her from the same place? 

Where the school setting does succeed is in its part in this production’s interpretation of Manon herself; Lawless’ Manon seems psychologically damaged – a victim of sexualisation at too early an age. One of the most disturbing moments in the production comes as Lescaut and Manon very nearly have sex; the suggestion of early abuse by a brother who is little more than a pimp casts a dark shadow. It is telling that, more often than not, when love was mentioned, Manon cast herself onto the bed; her approach to love is conditioned by sex.

Jean-Pierre Blanchard (dancer) and Elin Pritchard (Manon)
© Simon Annand

To carry this off, the production needs a Manon who can not just sing the part, but inhabit this damaged psyche. It has that and more in Elin Pritchard who is nothing less than sensational. Her performance alone warrants serious efforts to acquire a ticket. Quality of acting was extremely high; she gave us a Manon who buries her trauma under a desire for the superficial, but has devastating flashes of self-realisation and pure misery. Her final scene was deeply moving, face riven with pain and sorrow as she finally comes to terms with her experiences. Pritchard’s voice too was a delight; a warm, gleaming instrument that is supported at the top and is full of colour. Peter Auty, singing Des Grieux, is not as dynamic a stage presence and showed a slight tendency to stand and deliver, but was on good vocal form, delivering an Italianate account of the role, venturing gamely into the higher register. His Act 2 duet with Manon was most rewarding, even if his acting did not quite match the warmth of his voice.

Peter Auty (Des Grieux) and Elin Pritchard (Manon)
© Simon Annand

Nicholas Lester’s lyrical baritone belied the unpleasantness of his Lescaut; initially seen in Act 1 apparently in the role of teacher to Auty and company’s schoolchildren, he is quickly tempted into gambling with them; one is not entirely sold on the concept but it served to highlight the general weakness of character. Stephen Richardson was an excellent Geronte, bringing a menacing stillness and elegance to the role. Credit too must be given to Kamil Bien playing several roles, whose bright tenor opened the opera and whose sardonic expressions as Edmondo were particularly entertaining.

Elin Pritchard (Manon)
© Simon Annand

Inevitably one missed the presence of a ‘live’ orchestra in the pit; for Covid reasons, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra were not in the pit but were represented digitally. The sound was plush and appropriately paced, but lacked the sheer punch of a live band. Credit, though, to conductor Francesco Cilluffo for doing his utmost to bring synchronicity between digital players and the singers.

One minor gripe on the direction which no doubt will be ironed out: there were several points where singers were delivering their lines with backs to the audience, with no real dramatic reason for doing so. With just a slight adjustment to the positioning of the singers, this would not have been necessary.