Arts: An innocent abroad - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

Arts: An innocent abroad

The new staging of Puccini's 'Manon Lescaut' at Glyndebourne is a lucid and exuberant affair. By Edward Seckerson

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

In rep to 12 July. Booking: 01273 813813. Broadcast live on Channel 4 on Sat 31 May

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week