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Arts: An innocent abroad

The new staging of Puccini's 'Manon Lescaut' at Glyndebourne is a lucid and exuberant affair. By Edward Seckerson
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So much of Puccini's Manon Lescaut takes place between the acts that you half expect it to be over and done with upon your return from the dinner interval. It isn't, of course, and you're still a sea voyage and a whole other plotline away from the Arizona desert where Manon and her devoted Des Grieux are bizarrely united in a dusty death. "There was only one thing I could do - follow her! And follow her I will - to the ends of the earth!" Those words, extracted from the original novel by Abbe Prevost, aroused considerable mirth from the first-night audience when they appeared on the supertitle display (just as they do in Puccini's score) prior to the third act. So what was that? An audience caught off- guard into thinking they were witnessing a malfunction (they weren't)? Or disbelief that, after the events of the previous act, any man would choose to follow this selfish woman anywhere. Leave alone Arizona, Sounds like the punchline to a bad Noel Coward joke.

But if you, the audience, have somehow managed to fill out the narrative, to carry the emotional imperative of the piece over those daring inter- act jump-cuts, then Manon - the woman - becomes whole again. She's very much a victim of her times, seeking to live by the truth of passion in a society where women are conditioned to be bought, where wealth is the ultimate aphrodisiac, and a woman without a dowry is predestined for the streets - or the convent. That's where she's headed when we meet her. An innocent abroad, a kind of little girl blue wandering into Amiens just as the natives are getting restless. It is evening: the mating games begin here. And in Graham Vick's lucid production (perhaps the most restrained work I have yet seen from him) they are games - neatly choreographed. Courtly dances for the hoi polloi. Richard Hudson's minimalist sets - all Shaker-like pine floors and sun-baked yellow walls in Act 1 (a cheerful portent of the desertscape to come) - seem to open to the music as Vick, with characteristic panache, marshalls his assembled company downstage for one last exuberant chorus of "Let night reign!". He really hears the music, does Vick. The stage is set. Lust is in the air.

Love is too. Des Grieux believes it. Manon wants to believe it. But in an inspired (and subtly realised) moment which goes right to the heart of the piece, Vick has her momentarily distracted by a group of handsomely attired society ladies just seconds before her illicit liaison with Des Grieux. She is still visibly transported as she takes Des Grieux's hand like a child (a gesture movingly mirrored when we discover them way upstage - again like two lost children - in the final scene). Her longing for love has been corrupted by her lust for lolly. Society has decreed it.

And so arrives the shock of Act 2. The simple lovesick girl transformed into a vision of vanity, the cotton powder-blue frock now a fabulous silk confection, the wig as big as the ego, the gilded mirror soaring skyward, a succession of ageing fops hanging on her every weary whim (how clever of Vick to play so grotesquely on the age distinction). "A graceful union of love and riches," sings the chorus. But love has nothing to do with it. Money can't buy you love. It buys you a mistress.

Adina Nitescu has youth on her side. There is something vulnerable, even at times awkward, about her stage presence. Which makes the painted doll look all the more shocking. A rasping petulance creeps into her voice. Nitescu first captivated me at the 1991 Cardiff Singer of the World. I was not alone in feeling outraged that she didn't make the final. She sings with her whole being, she sings with a full heart, the dusky colouring of her lower voice seemingly pushed right up through the register. She is musical, she is touching. Sometimes you crave a little more length and breadth from a phrase, sometimes the voice and temperament simply do not have the reach that the role demands. You feel that she's yet to grow into it. But then she opens up with a phrase like "No, I don't want to die!" and you really don't know where the extra juice comes from. Except that it does. A really promising talent closing in on fulfilment. As is Patrick Denniston, the American Des Grieux, very much of the newer, leaner and hungrier breed of tenor. The voice took a while to open to the music's enticements, the elegance of the phrasing was initially not matched in the sound. But he cuts a fine agile figure and the intensity of the delivery is unstinting. The supporting cast were all good. But this is the opera in which the whole final act is a duet. Puccini started bold to grow bolder.

As for John Eliot Gardiner's first foray into this territory, it was confoundingly good. The rhythmic effervescence, the brilliance of the articulation (marvellous work from the London Philharmonic) came as no surprise (I honestly can't remember the final pages of Act 2 sounding more of a race against the clock). But the delectable finessing of the rubatos, the rightness of the phrasing, had one wondering if he's been conducting Puccini in camera elsewhere. The final freeze-frame - Manon still kneeling as if in prayer, Des Grieux looking on, the realisation of her loss still to dawn - is one of those perfect marriages of sound and image that take opera somewhere elsen

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