The chances of a good night at Opera Holland Park when a so-called verismo era opera is being performed are usually high. The OHP production of Puccini’s La rondine was the highlight of their 2017 season and they opened this year’s with a new production of Puccini’s first real success, Manon Lescaut with, in true English fashion, terrible weather and peacocks offering regular interruptions!

Elizabeth Llewellyn (Manon Lescaut) and Peter Auty (des Grieux) © Robert Workman
Elizabeth Llewellyn (Manon Lescaut) and Peter Auty (des Grieux)
© Robert Workman

Karolina Sofulak’s take on the work is somewhat of a mixed bag where it seems as though she has hit on one or two reasonable ideas around which she has based the production without being able to reconcile the disparate elements into a fully cohesive form. The setting is updated from 18th-century France to the 1960s and instead of the Amiénois square of Act 1, we have a trendy bar. A sharp-suited cigar smoking Geronte is feted by the scantily dressed women swarming around him: here, he is no politician, but a mafioso-style criminal who leaves the party to mutter orders to a gun-wielding goon. Nothing overly original there perhaps, but the production gives a real kick in the third act when Sofulak replaces the prison scene with a parade of girls as if at auction, descending from the likes of Manon to a heavily pregnant lady and searingly a barely teenage girl, forced fearfully onto a podium. It’s an unexpected move which changes Sofulak’s sleazy, at times almost comical Geronte, into something much darker.

Elizabeth Llewellyn (Manon Lescaut) with Shadow Manons and members of the Opera Holland Park Chorus © Ali Wright
Elizabeth Llewellyn (Manon Lescaut) with Shadow Manons and members of the Opera Holland Park Chorus
© Ali Wright

The problems lie in Acts 2 and 4: as part of the entertainment for Manon in the second act, Geronte seems to arrange some kind of fashion show within his rather drab apartment which fails to convince. Similarly, the fourth act where Manon has traditionally been deported to America – in this production, clearly impractical – has instead the two lovers wandering the alleys of her city. Instead of expiring, she gradually retreats from des Grieux, drawing towards the sole illumination on stage of a street lamp as darkness gradually falls over des Grieux, a curious and lacklustre conclusion.

Elizabeth Llewellyn (Manon Lescaut) and Peter Auty (des Grieux) © Ali Wright
Elizabeth Llewellyn (Manon Lescaut) and Peter Auty (des Grieux)
© Ali Wright

Elizabeth Llewellyn led OHP’s La rondine and despite contracting laryngitis the previous week, boldly fought on as Manon. Although her voice clearly hadn’t completely recovered, it’s a terrific instrument, brightly coloured, expressive and rich. There were times when, for obvious reasons, she seemed to take the music cautiously, but by the second half she had regained confidence and the voice seemed in near pristine condition. Llewellyn is one of those performers so naturally elegant on stage that she imbues her heroines with a certain noble grace, even as she is lined up in Act 3 as a sex slave. There were problems, though, in the chemistry between her and our des Grieux, sung by Peter Auty. His interpretation of the role was rather like Ted Heath on the backbenches: one long and peevish sulk. Although he sang with energy, the top of Auty’s voice was weak and the absence of any apparent desire for Manon diminished the central point of the first half, the key scene between them delivered with anger but little romance.

Stephen Richardson gave a vivid, highly enjoyable performance as Geronte. Richardson is a big man with a big voice and looming over virtually everyone else, he dominated his scenes. He has a rich lower register with plenty of power to it, and dramatically he matched with moments of comedy – the senex amator of the first act – with some moments of cold cruelty.

Paul Carey Jones (Lescaut), Elizabeth Llewellyn (Manon Lescaut) and Stephen Richardson (Geronte) © Ali Wright
Paul Carey Jones (Lescaut), Elizabeth Llewellyn (Manon Lescaut) and Stephen Richardson (Geronte)
© Ali Wright

Paul Carey Jones was an oddly likeable Lescaut, despite his involvement in bringing her into Geronte’s grip; a louche character idling about the stage in brown loafers before sudden bursts of energy drove him forward. Credit must also go to Alistair Sutherland, constantly in the background as the Innkeeper / Sergeant, though in this production Geronte’s gun-toting henchman with a dependably sinister expression, and also to Stephen Aviss for his enthusiastic and mellifluous Edmondo.

Peter Robinson’s energetic conducting of the score paid off in the second half, particularly in the silkiness of the intermezzo, but there were times when what was happening in the pit was rather too remote from the singers who seemed to disagree with his tempi. The OHP Chorus, always reliable, gave a rowdy performance in the first act. An enjoyable performance, on the whole, but it’s a production that could do with some tinkering for the future.

***11