Manon Lescaut, La Monnaie, Brussels

Three months after Krzysztof Warlikowski’s enterprising production of Berg’s Lulu, La Monnaie is fielding an ambitious attempt by a fellow Pole, Mariusz Trelinski, to give Puccini’s first big critical and audience success a contemporary makeover.

But if Lulu is open season for a director’s imagination, Manon Lescaut is a tougher nut to crack as its story line only really makes sense in an ancien régime setting. Trelinski gives the whole work a gritty unity amid very resourceful stagecraft, but his soulless set – a drab modern waiting room against a video backdrop of city lights – is so unremittingly bleak that the score’s 18th-century pastiche charms in Acts I and II are largely obscured. They get another knock when Manon’s wealthy protector Geronte turns out to be the head of an S&M coven and a glamorous backing group trots on to sing the madrigal.

Nor is there any sense of progression from Manon’s flirtatious beginning to her tragic deportation and death. Manon starts as she means to go on, not as an ingénue but as a stereotype chain-smoking vamp in sunglasses, red mac and stilettos, a symbol of male desire like Lulu. Des Grieux is her hapless victim, a loner in a society of grey suits commuting to work on the Metro. He is the only person on stage with a heart – or rather an obsession – and the staging makes him, not Manon, the central character.

If Trelinski’s take jars with the first half of the opera, his talent starts to work powerful dramatic magic from Act III onwards as the music focuses on emotions rather than period charm. The transformation of the deportation scene into a human meat auction, with onlookers brandishing score cards for each prostitute, is chillingly effective. And, in a clever twist at the end, Des Grieux survives (as in the original story), abandoning Manon and sitting side by side with her double ahead of a new cycle of enslavement.

This is enterprising theatre, but Puccini emerges rather bloodied from the experience despite Carlo Rizzi’s spirited conducting and a superb contribution from the chorus. Trelinski makes matters worse by introducing sound effects before and after the music, usurping the composer’s cadences with unwelcome codas of rumbling trains. And the cast lack the grand Italian style even if their acting is superb. Brandon Jovanovich’s impassioned Des Grieux is full-throated but unidiomatic and Eva Maria Westbroek (Manon) struggles to control her spreading soprano, a consequence of too much Wagner and Strauss.

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