Manon Lescaut, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – review

The programme for Welsh National Opera’s “Fallen Women” season includes a string of essays by female academics and writers, examining whether opera’s morally dubious heroines are exploiters of men or victims, and whether the term has any lingering currency in today’s less judgmental climate. It’s a debate Polish director Mariusz Trelinski seems determined to stoke in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which he sets in the moral desert of the modern metropolis. Manon is successively call girl, gold digger, sex slave and survivor, but spends most of the evening hiding behind a designer coat and dark glasses.

The result, deliberate or not, is strangely impersonal. Maybe the idea is to keep everyone guessing – to provoke us into pondering whether the pill, penicillin and plastic surgery have released women from the dangers of “having it all” and the moral opprobrium it brought to Manon and her 19th-century sisters.

The series title derives from the Italian word “traviata”, but Puccini’s Manon (like Henze’s Manon in Boulevard Solitude and Verdi’s Violetta, both of whom follow in coming weeks) was always going to be difficult for a 21st-century audience to accept as “fallen”. We first meet her en route to a convent for errant girls – a source of titters in the context of Boris Kudlicka’s Canary Wharf-like set – and Trelinski has her waltzing off at the end as if, like today’s celebrities, she can rise and fall and rise again. It’s lover-boy Des Grieux, much like Alfredo in La traviata, who falls from bourgeois respectability and never recovers.

Trelinski’s schema works best in the first two acts, which capture the glitz and transience of the city, replacing the sentiment in Puccini’s score with a modern edginess – a facet brilliantly captured by the WNO orchestra under the indispensable Lothar Koenigs. The third act – the famous deportation scene at Le Havre – turns into a sort of nightmarish Parisian catwalk, and by the finale Trelinski has lost the plot, with a Manon double stalking the lovers in the same soulless urban environment as Act One.

That Chiara Taigi’s Manon maintains such a shadowy presence, vocally and histrionically, neither helps nor undermines the production concept. Even Gwyn Hughes Jones’s city-slicker Des Grieux seems to be searching for an identity, leaving David Kempster’s wheeler-dealer Lescaut and Stephen Richardson’s drug-lord Geronte as the only realistic characters in Trelinski’s metropolitan maze.

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