The story of Manon, at least in its familiar operatic versions, is something of a mystery. In Abbé Prévost's original, it is Des Grieux's own tale of romantic obsession with an elusive but irresistibly attractive girl. He projects his passion onto her.
But bring this wraith to the stage, and the magic easily evaporates. She seems weak and vapid. She is torn between her love for Des Grieux and her appetite for wealth and glamour. Even when, in Puccini's version, her lover comes to rescue her from her life of affluent boredom with the elderly Geronte, she dithers over her jewellery and the chance of escape is lost. You almost expect someone to call out: "Leave 'er - she's not werf it."
Last year, Daniel Slater did Massenet's Manon for Opera North. This year, it is Puccini's turn. His Italianate version makes for an exciting evening, but the four acts he took from his army of librettists make an elaborate story even less intelligible. We see nothing of Des Grieux's and Manon's idyll of love together. The first act, in which he abducts her, is followed by the rescue, in which she has already left him in favour of the rich old Geronte. To make sense of this opera, you need to know what happens between the acts.
Slater kept Massenet's version in the 18th century. He sets Puccini's in France at the time of its liberation 60 years ago. This works quite well, and gives the piece an unusual immediacy. The first act takes place not at an inn but at Amiens train station. Lescaut (Christopher Purves), Manon's brother, is still in uniform. Geronte (Brian Bannatyne-Scott), who plans to abduct Manon himself, wears an expensive coat with a fur collar. He looks to have done well out of the occupation. Des Grieux (Hugh Smith) is a big country bumpkin.
In the second act Manon's boredom is immediately apparent. Lescaut has transformed himself into a sporty man about town. She is ogled by Geronte's rich old friends. Of course she misses Des Grieux's youth and ardour. And it is hard to imagine them better conveyed than by Hugh Smith, who is magnificent in the role - passionate, eloquent, but full of variety and sensitivity, the most Italianate singing of the evening.
As Manon, Natalia Dercho looked suitably demure in Act 1, but sounded too mature to be a plausible young girl. Perhaps nerves played a part, for she sounded uncertain in Act 2 as well. By the end, though, she had risen to the tragedy of Manon's miserable deportation and death, and she and Smith did the long duet of the last act splendidly.
Hugh Smith was the evening's vocal star; the other star was in the pit. The orchestra played superbly for its new music director, Richard Farnes, who directed a performance which had clarity and careful balance as well as passion and momentum.
To 8 October (0113-222 6222), then touring to Newcastle, Salford, Leeds again and Nottingham