“Fallen Women” is the chosen title under which Welsh National Opera has themed the trio of operas in its spring season. Two versions of the Abbé Prévost’s Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, by Puccini and Henze, join the perennially popular La traviata. Puccini’s Manon Lescaut shares a director, design team and set with Henze’s reworking of the story as Boulevard Solitude. Mariusz Treliński trades the coaching inn at Amiens for a busy Metro concourse populated by faceless commuters, often caught in freeze-frame. The set is backlit with Bartek Macias’ video projections of cityscapes and trains. It’s all very film noir – chic, bleak and provocative – but Puccini’s Manon it is not. When his heroine makes her first appearance, she is no teenage ingénue, but clad in scarlet plastic mac, killer stilettos and dark shades. She is already a fallen woman, a hooker plying her trade to businessmen at the station. When she tells Des Grieux that she’s en route to a convent, it’s clearly laced with irony.

Chiara Taigi (Manon Lescaut) © Johan Persson
Chiara Taigi (Manon Lescaut)
© Johan Persson

Des Grieux is one of those crumpled, middle-aged businessmen and the opera is told through his eyes, either in flashback (he begins and ends the opera slumped on a bench) or as a dream or drug-fuelled hallucination. Manon is his fantasy escape from commuting tedium. In designs by Boris Kudlička and Magdalena Musial, a digital clock whirrs out of control, the timeframe remaining deliberately uncertain. By the end, Manon doesn’t die of thirst on the plains of the Louisiana desert, but is lost, abandoned by Des Grieux, who has cast her aside for another prostitute, seemingly her doppelgänger. Or is it Manon who abandons him? The audience seemed as dazed and confused as Des Griuex.

Treliński’s production explores voyeurism and male fantasies to the extreme. Lescaut, Manon’s brother, is effectively her pimp, possibly sharing an incestuous relationship with her, while Geronte is no roué, but a dangerous gangster, whose nightclub is a seedy dive, where bondage and ritual abuse are rife. Manon is deported for stealing jewels we never see. In Act III, when Manon appears at Le Havre, she and her fellow deportees parade in a humiliating spectacle, hands tied and raised above their heads, judged by a scorecard wielding crowd. The only moment of light relief comes when the singers performing the madrigal Geronte has composed for Manon are a glitzy girl-band.

Gwyn Hughes Jones (Des Grieux) and Chiara Taigi (Manon) © Johan Persson
Gwyn Hughes Jones (Des Grieux) and Chiara Taigi (Manon)
© Johan Persson

Musically, the performances were as stylish as the production. Chiara Taigi has a dark, sensuous soprano. High notes have a tendency to harden under pressure, but she digs into the rich mezzo-soprano realms of her voice well. This rather played to Treliński’s vampish view of Manon, Taigi striking the femme fatale posturing convincingly. “In quelle trine morbide” contained luscious low notes, but she was at her finest in the Act IV aria “Sola, perduta, abbandonata”, her warm tone and secure phrasing impressing. Yet I never felt that this Manon ever loves Des Grieux.

Gwyn Hughes Jones usually impresses in Puccini and his tenor has just the right sort of heroic ringing sound for Des Grieux, even when Treliński presents him as such an un-heroic character. His infatuation with Manon was obvious from the start. He stylishly dispatched the aria “Donna non vidi mai”, riding Puccini’s heavy orchestration with ease.

David Kempster (Lescaut) and Stephen Richardson (Geronte) © Johan Persson
David Kempster (Lescaut) and Stephen Richardson (Geronte)
© Johan Persson

David Kempster’s Lescaut came across as a sleazy counterpart to Geronte (even adopting his white suit for Act II), but was excellently sung, his powerful voice making one regret Puccini’s meagre offerings to the baritones in his operas (Scarpia and Michele the noble exceptions). Stephen Richardson’s gruff Geronte was creepily effective and, among the minor roles, Simon Crosby Buttle’s Edmondo – here a station sweeper – made the greatest impact, with his sweet, lyric tenor.

WNO’s Music Director Lothar Koenigs conducted an impassioned account of Puccini’s rich score, not always finding a comfortable balance between voices and the pit, but finding the glitter and sparkle the edgy staging lacked.

Ultimately, Treliński’s Des Grieux is besotted with Manon as a fantasy figure, but not in love with the woman beneath the plastic exterior. Manon is a difficult enough heroine for audiences to love, but stripped of her youthful innocence and coquettish sense of fun, it’s even harder to engage with her fall. Treliński’s de-romanticizing of the plot makes for a compelling piece of theatre… it’s just not Manon. Perhaps it makes more sense seen alongside Henze’s opera to draw comparisons, but seen in isolation, this was more Boulevard Solitude than Manon Lescaut.