Women on the Edge is the title that Opera North has given to the latest of its themed seasons, featuring three operas. And Dvorak's Rusalka, Verdi's Violetta and Massenet's Manon do, indeed, all face hard, even agonising choices. La Traviata and Manon, in particular, have much in common. Both are set in Paris, both focus on women who, in a male-dominated social context, have to choose between the love of a single man and the glitzy life obtained by sexual availability.
But whereas Violetta wants nothing more than to live quietly in the country with her Alfredo, Manon is constantly tempted by the pleasures of "high" society. When Des Grieux (Julian Gavin) paints his picture of rural seclusion in Act II, Manon (Malin Bystrom) isn't listening. She is dreaming of the pleasures that money can buy, and leaves him in favour of an elderly rich protector. Later, she tempts Des Grieux back from his role as a priest. But it all ends unhappily. Manon dies. Des Grieux lives to write her story, and in Daniel Slater's intelligent new production, we see him, seated at a table, doing so from the opening scene.
Slater's approach to Manon is unashamedly theatrical. Realism is replaced by artifice. Chorus and lead singers line up at the front of the stage, musical-style. When Manon does her star turn in Act III, the house lights go up: she is performing for us as much as for the Parisians on stage.
The basic set is simple: three vast picture frames, the one at the back filled with black reflecting glass that becomes transparent when needed. The budget has gone on the costumes, mainly black and white with splashes of colour, which are elegant and eye-catching. And the wigs. The wigs, both splendiferous and grotesque, are a spectacle in themselves.
The focus of the opera is normally on Manon, but Julian Gavin gives so strong a performance that Des Grieux becomes the main focus of our sympathy. Unfairly, perhaps, for Manon is under huge pressures. Malin Bystrom, a subtle and intelligent singer and actor, gives a touching performance of this complex, ambiguous character. But the top of her voice sounded thin, and Manon's coloratura moments did not ideally suit her creamy tones.
William Dazeley was too amiable as Manon's manipulative cousin, but Jonathan Best turned in an impressive cameo as Count Des Grieux. Grant Llewellyn and the orchestra perhaps overdid the passion in the score - it sounded more Italian than French at times - but better that than an excess of refinement. This is not a refined story, and it benefits from the speed and vitality of this production.
Tonight, Theatre Royal, Newcastle (0870 905 5060), then touring to 28 NovemberReuse content