Most Australian capital cities now have their own small but independent opera companies, filling in the many niches overlooked by the national company, Opera Australia, and the state companies. One such is the young Opera Box in Perth, where the West Australian Opera rolls out a steady diet of 19th-century warhorses with the occasional Mozart. Unlike other “alternative” companies, such as the very successful Pinchgut Opera in Sydney, Opera Box is not looking to perform earlier or obscure works, but tackles head-on mainstream operas, some of which somehow get overlooked in Australia. Last year, an ambitious Ariadne auf Naxos was an almost unqualified success. This year’s Manon provided an enjoyable night out, if not quite as triumphant as the Strauss. This is a very accessible opera with attractive melodies and it is something of a puzzle why it has been so little performed in this country.

<i>Manon</i> © Opera Box
Manon
© Opera Box

The company strives to use smaller venues but with proper proscenium theatres and orchestra pits, in this case the new Marist Auditorium attached to a Catholic school – I only mention this because it means alcohol cannot be served on the premises (what is French opera without champagne?). The production made judicious use of the comfortably-sized stage and curtain, with simple effective sets. There was a certain awkwardness in the staging; in Act II, the lovers’ apartment was represented by a screen, a chaise and a table (naturellement), which was fine, but having the Chévalier des Grieux elaborately mime opening a door was quite unnecessary. The action was updated to the 20th century between the wars, but this didn’t really add (or subtract) much to the story.

It led to some curious costuming. Manon first appeared looking appropriately demure and dowdy, with a little girly straw hat and a cotton frock with rather anachronistic flying panels. At the height of her transformed self, she donned a bright yellow silk frock, also with flying panels, and, even more absurdly, in the casino her (by now trademark) yellow silk frock sported 18th-century paniers. Guillot, portrayed here as a total clown, seemed more 19th-century in dress than the rest. Des Grieux came on in a white suit, of which the jacket was far too tight; one young man sported a most unlikely outfit of fair isle jumper, skinny jeans and riding boots. The trio of croupiers (croupettes?) in Scene IV, sporting blue and silver helmets (bike style), wide silver collars and blue and silver sheaths at least could be imagined in the 1930s, in a sci fi movie or one of Busby Berkeley’s wackier routines.

Jenna Robertson (Manon) © Opera Box
Jenna Robertson (Manon)
© Opera Box

The unnamed orchestra was relatively small (25 musicians), but included the full orchestration laid down by the composer, lacking only a harp. It was conducted by Christopher Dragon, an experienced Australian now Associate Conductor with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. The prélude was delivered with great élan, with the percussion being perhaps overly dominant; this improved however as the opera went on, and the orchestra provided great support for the singers, never overwhelming them and bringing out the felicities and varied colours of the score. The Act IV finale was a particular highlight.

The singing was a little patchy. Soprano Jenna Robertson, one of the moving forces of the company, carried the title role, but was perhaps somewhat overparted for what is really quite a demanding spinto role; her emoting was possibly more convincing than her actual singing. She has rather a heavy vibrato, that spread in the higher notes to produce a rather squally sound but, interestingly, when the high notes were more exposed she alighted on them with more purity and accuracy. Overall it was a well-thought out portrayal. Des Grieux was sung by Gaetano Bonfante with a certain stiffness; his voice has a natural warmth, but he seemed to be straining at times, with a certain throatiness diluting the tenor tone. Kristin Bowtell was excellent as Lescaut; this rather boofheaded role was sung with considerable resonant elegance, and “Ma Rosalinde” was particularly well-delivered.

<i>Manon</i> © Opera Box
Manon
© Opera Box

The other roles were all well taken, including Sitiveni Talei as Bretigny and Simon Wood as Guillot. Christina Thé as Poussette has a noticeably pretty soprano, and Michael Heap produced a smooth des Grieux père, demonstrating considerable comfort in the French tongue, although it must be said the diction all round was more than competent. All the ensembles were well co-ordinated, and the pacing never flagged. The audience seemed thoroughly engaged with the performance, and one looks forward to future productions.