Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s first great success, but while it is full of marvellous moments, it is haphazardly built.
Only in the second half does director Karolina Sofulak – winner, with designer George Johnson-Leigh, of the 2018 European Opera Prize – take compelling charge of the piece. Before that the 1960s setting jars with material rooted in the 18th century and some episodes lack elan, notably the tricky Act II finale, which here fails to suspend disbelief.
Things change in Act III when Sofulak takes a symbolic approach. Manon is not punished for loose morals with deportation to colonial America. Instead, glamorous in sequins and furs and flanked by mute lookalikes, she is judged a fallen star by society and dismissed by her sugar daddy. In her subsequent death scene, she fades away, standing under a lamp post.
Elizabeth Llewellyn also reaches her peak after the interval, her voice blossoming to the full. Throughout, she phrases with artistry and fleshes out Manon’s mercurial, sometimes enigmatic character. Peter Auty works up a fine head of steam as a full-throated Des Grieux and Paul Carey Jones, impressively resonant, makes the slimy Lescaut almost too engaging.
A dynamic Edmondo, Stephen Aviss launches proceedings auspiciously. Stephen Richardson’s Geronte is suavely sinister and there are firmly defined performances from Ellie Edmonds (The Singer), John Wood (Dancing Master) and Alistair Sutherland (Innkeeper/Sergeant).
This is a heavily scored opera, but conductor Peter Robinson emphasises grace beside exuberance and passion, and the City of London Sinfonia finds a showcase in the famous Intermezzo that opens Act III.