<preform>Manon Lescaut, Grand Theatre, Leeds<br> The Trojans, Coliseum, London<br> Berliner Philharmoniker, Barbican Hall, London</preform>

Lights! Camera! Nonsense!
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The Independent Culture

For those with a penchant for reference books, Daniel Slater's new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut for Opera North is something of a goldmine. Like Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1949 film Manon - the inspiration for Hans Werner Henze's Boulevard Solitude - Slater's production updates Abbé Prévost's pre-Revolutionary tale of avarice and erotic obsession to post-liberation Paris. As Henze demonstrated, this era is probably the last in which the social structures essential to the story of Manon Lescaut continued to exist: la race, le milieu, le moment. But Henze did not base his opera on a film set and neither did Puccini. Neither, for that matter did Massenet, whose earlier version of the same story Slater directed in Leeds last year.

For those with a penchant for reference books, Daniel Slater's new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut for Opera North is something of a goldmine. Like Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1949 film Manon - the inspiration for Hans Werner Henze's Boulevard Solitude - Slater's production updates Abbé Prévost's pre-Revolutionary tale of avarice and erotic obsession to post-liberation Paris. As Henze demonstrated, this era is probably the last in which the social structures essential to the story of Manon Lescaut continued to exist: la race, le milieu, le moment. But Henze did not base his opera on a film set and neither did Puccini. Neither, for that matter did Massenet, whose earlier version of the same story Slater directed in Leeds last year.

As I hinted above, I'm rather fond of trivia. So I was pleased to learn that Prévost's amoral teenage heroine is denounced as a collaborator in Clouzot's film, that Manon scooped the prize for Best Film at Venice in 1949, and that Clouzot himself was accused of pro-Nazi behaviour after the Second World War. That this might inspire Slater to twist Puccini's opera accordingly is understandable. (Clearly he had to make this production different from his chocolate box Massenet.) But does this thin trail of thematic coincidence justify his decision to make Edmondo (Gordon Wilson) a director and Manon (Natalia Dercho), Des Grieux (Hugh Smith), Geronte (Brian Bannatyne-Scott) and Lescaut (Christopher Purves) the actors in his movie? I don't think so. Act I of Manon Lescaut opens pleasantly enough with Smith's Des Grieux singing Tra voi belle, brune o biondi in a style that nods at the casual charm of Tino Rossi. Des Grieux, Edmondo and Manon are still out of character; only assuming their cinematic identities when the cameras roll. Humour is deliberately injected by mistimed entrances from some of the other "actors" - and a great deal of fussy business with the clapperboard - and accidentally by the maturity of the hero and heroine; which would be less distracting were this not supposed to be a film set. Puccini's libretto-by-committee - which had more writers than the script of Casablanca - largely withstands the dizzying edits of Slater's concept. But the challenge of tracking which reality we are in at any one time quickly grates and any successful matches of text to situation soon begin to seem like happy accidents.

It is in Act II that things start to go seriously wrong. We are in the cinema, watching the finished product, or at least a rough cut. Dercho is dressed and lit like Joan Crawford: a femme fatale whose gin-swilling glamour swoons against the mustardy skies of a melancholy sunset. And it is here - here being Hollywood rather than Paris - that one stops trying to work out which lines will be sung in which character and realises that there is no character for them to be sung in, much less two. For character, perhaps in tribute to the disenchanted Clouzot, is one of several elements that are missing in Manon Lescaut. Is this Slater's sole responsibility? It's a difficult one to call in any production but Dercho's Butterfly for Scottish Opera in 2001 was far from characterless and Purves is not normally the cartoon cut-out he is here. In the pit too, Opera North's new Music Director Richard Farnes - a born Puccinian - coaxes a spellbinding performance from the orchestra: perfectly, stunningly paced in its hectic, frantic energy and sudden, sullen lassitude. A wonderful account quite wasted on this silly production.

Having lavished so much attention to periodicity, it is ironic that another of the missing elements is style. Clouzot's sardonic noirish shadows are forgotten in Slater's bid for sensationalism, hence Act III's poignant intermezzo - played ravishingly by the orchestra - becomes the soundtrack to a handheld black and white video of the sort favoured by pretentious rock bands as we see Manon's head shaved and branded with a swastika. (Scrawled on the wall is a quote from Sartre, presumably to remind us again of which country we are supposed to be in.) Then there's commonsense. Instead of Louisiana, Manon is shipped to Devil's Island, though this penal purgatory did not house any female criminals in the two years between the liberation of Paris and its closure, or, indeed, ever. Did I mention Lescaut is shot? Or that Manon gets up and walks off the set after dying? Or that the extras are present during the (invisible but implied) filming of Sola, perduta, abbandonata? Never mind. One day Farnes will conduct another, better production of Manon Lescaut. And it won't be directed by Slater.

So from MTV to CNN. Back in London, the bringing together of both halves of Richard Jones's sometimes brilliant, sometimes bizarre English National Opera production of The Trojans was similarly frustrating. Using two different designers for Troy (Stewart Laing) and Carthage (John Macfarlane) makes no more sense - to me, at least - than it did when each part of Berlioz's epic was unveiled last year. But I found I enjoyed Jones's Baby Boomer analogue of The Capture of Troy a good deal better than I had before. Despite the Greek soldiers' new baseball caps. (Look! Friendly terrorists!)

Though John Daszak (Aeneas) was under the weather at the first performance and Christopher Saunders's boyish Hylas - replaced by the regal Mark Padmore - was missed, the cast too seems stronger. Susan Bickley's Cassandra is still impressive, while Sarah Connolly's grave, sensual, clever Dido is the most pressing reason to see this production again. But the giant leaps one hoped the chorus and orchestra would make in their execution of the score are only half-complete, which perhaps explains why the auditorium was only 60 per cent full on opening night. The blend of the former is still rough and the detailing of the latter is uneven; as though only every other page of their music were marked up. Like Daniel Slater, conductor Paul Daniel has some interesting ideas but fails to connect them into a cohesive argument. But gosh, what a piece.

The Queen has two birthdays. Bernard Haitink has half a dozen. This week, in the penultimate concert of the Barbican's "Haitink at 75" series, he celebrated with the Berliner Philharmoniker. There are orchestras I am more consistently moved by - the Budapest Festival Orchestra, for one - but, hand on heart, there were sounds made in this performance of Mahler's Third Symphony that I had never heard before. From the arid brushed-steel opening to the beatific benediction of the off-stage posthorn, this was benchmark orchestral virtuosity: the perfect tool for Haitink's measured expressivity and the perfect accompaniment to Anna Larsson's primordial delivery of O mensch! Gib Acht! Unbelievably good. And unbelievably better than their recent performances at the Proms.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'Manon Lescaut': Grand Theatre, Leeds (0113 243 9999), to 8 October; 'The Trojans': The Coliseum, London WC2 (020 7632 8300), to 5 October

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