Manon Lescaut review – first-rate singing but Puccini’s masterpiece falters

Like many opera companies, the Grange festival has been having its share of problems as lockdown eases, most notably difficulties surrounding social distancing in the pit, resulting in the decision to give its current season pre-recorded digital orchestral tracks. Each track can be manipulated in performance to follow the conductor’s beat, though on the first night of Manon Lescaut, conductor Francesco Cilluffo attentively directed singers and chorus but didn’t intervene in the big orchestral passages such as the Act Three intermezzo. The principal advantage of this, of course, is that you hear the full orchestration, rather than one of the reduced scorings that nowadays feel almost like the norm.

Puccini’s 1893 masterpiece comes, however, in a sadly ill-focused new production by Stephen Lawless that relocates the opera to the years surrounding the Nazi occupation of France. Elin Pritchard’s Manon and Peter Auty’s Des Grieux elope as news of invasion breaks. There are suggestions, not supported by libretto or score, of an incestuous relationship between Manon and her brother Lescaut (Nicholas Lester), while wealthy Geronte (Stephen Richardson) is a Nazi collaborator: Manon’s decision to become his mistress consequently makes her even more unsympathetic at this point than she should be. Tone and narrative sometimes falter: setting the first act in a school, with Des Grieux and the students as schoolboys in shorts, is faintly ludicrous; the final scenes play themselves out after the liberation, but leave us in the dark as to exactly why Manon is being deported, or indeed where.

It doesn’t add up to a satisfactory whole, though it’s extremely well performed. Passionately intense, Auty is terrific in one of the most exacting roles in the entire tenor repertory. With her sweet, silvery tone, Pritchard sounds lovely throughout, does wonders with her two big arias, and eventually gains our compassion as Manon’s life gradually spirals out of control. Lester is a really raffish Lescaut, Richardson a very malign Geronte. The choral singing, all-important in Acts One and Three, is first rate.

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