After Annabel Arden's tight, intense production of La traviata and Olivia Fuchs's austere Rusalka, Daniel Slater's opulent staging of Manon - the third in Opera North's "Women on the edge" Autumn season - represents something of a backlash against the less-is-more school of opera direction. Fair dos, you might say. Massenet's cod-baroque confection of romanticised imitative devices and gilded cadenzas - variously plundered from the roccoco cantatilles of Mouret and, in the case of one chaconne, from Rameau - is one of the most luxuriously over-written trifles in the canon. But Slater's approach to staging this sugar-rush of an opera indicates all the self-restraint of a newly-minted divorcee on a chocolate and credit card binge.
Like Massenet's score, Slater's production performs a series of flashy stunts and then waits for applause before continuing with the narrative. In late 19th-century Paris, I daresay such pauses might be welcome among those listeners whose romantic intrigues were perforce pursued in public. In early 21st-century Leeds, with an audience used to propulsive drama and emotional immediacy, they make for a stop-start curiosity that seems destined never to end. Slater employs all the tricks in the directorial handbook to solicit our attention: two-way mirrors, exuberantly choreographed crowd scenes, extravagant lighting and costume changes, more hidden doors than an Advent calender, and "thought bubble" sightings of the person or persons occupying the mind of the person who is singing. (As if such information weren't already supplied by the libretto and score.) But those scenes with the least spectacle are, in fact, the most effective; those that, like the pivotal encounter between Manon (Malin Byström) and Des Grieux (Julian Gavin) at St Sulpice, focus purely on moments of emotional crisis.
Sadly, such moments are rare in Manon. Unlike Puccini or Henze, whose Manon Lescaut and Boulevard Solitude are as much about the psychology of co-dependency as they are about the narrative of Abbé Prévost's semi-autobiographical 18th-century novel, Massenet focuses on the wider social mores and periodicity of his subject almost to the exclusion of individual characterisation. (Not a charge you could level at his other great vicars-and-tarts opera, Thaïs.) Consequently, the most interesting music is to be found in his ensembles; from the madrigalian quintet of the opening scene - beautifully coloured by conductor Grant Llewellyn - to the prayer to Saints Augustine and Theresa at the opening of Act III and the taut banter of the gaming house. The best singing is to be found here too, as Opera North's supporting cast quite excels its leads; with William Dazely, Jonathan Best and Anna-Clare Monk offering the most impressive performances as Lescaut, Des Grieux Père and Poussette. But pity poor Byström and Gavin! They have so little to go on. One struggles with her diction (hard to pull off when using such an elaborately covered tone) while the other struggles with the wig that Slater uses to indicate, quite extraneously to the opera, Des Grieux's memory of his passion for Manon when older, holier and wiser. It's a nice device for the first scene but verges on the farcical with repetition and smacks of directorial desperation. For some, the decadent delirium and distractions of Slater's production will be magic - a perfect synthesis of medium and message. For others, like myself, it represents a failure to compensate for Massenet's dramatic weaknesses and to enchant with his strengths.
For me, this week's first dose of real enchantment came in an altogether different form, that of György Ligeti's comic opera, Le Grand Macabre. This is a work that teases at opera seria's absurd conventions when dealing with matters politic, erotic and necrotic (which pretty much covers the lot when you think about it) but does so with such tenderness and humour and invention that, in direct contrast to Manon, not only do you want to hear the work itself again, you also want to hear the works it parodies. It's much to the credit of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, back on fine form after a difficult summer, and conductor Alexander Rumpf that Ligeti's switchblade shifts in style had such riveting clarity and character. Ligeti himself has pointed to the pop-art collages of Peter Blake as an inspiration for his opera, and all the snorts and squelches and involuntary shudders and squeaks of human desire and fear are here. Put Berg, Monteverdi, the tango and the Charleston through a shredder and - boom! splat! whee! kerching! - here is this crazy beast of an opera; a Buster Keaton-meets-Pieter Brueghel fable where the pornographic and the philosophical collide, and motor-horns and coloratura sopranos compete with the stygian silt of a regal organ.
Why Covent Garden has still not staged Le Grand Macabre - Peter Sellars' production was cancelled due to technical problems upon the reopening of the Royal Opera House - is a mystery. When they do finally get around to it, they could do a darn sight worse than hire those singers involved in the Barbican's semi-demi-staging. With the greatest of respect to Emma Kirkby and the legion of mini-Ems, I've rarely heard two female voices better suited to the ecstatic plateaus and breathless gasps of stile moderna's sweet suspensions than those of Johanette Somer (Amanda) and Hanne Fischer (Amando). And is there another bass-baritone capable of delivering Nekrotzar's line "I am well-hung!" with as much gravitas as Willard White? With an excellent supporting cast too numerous to name-check in full, but gilded by the performances of Graham Clark (Piet the Pot), David Walker (Prince Go-Go), Caroline Stein (Venus/ Gepopo/ Chief of the Secret Police), and the BBC Singers, this event was truly one to savour - regardless of the faulty limiters on some microphones.
As was the Gabrieli Consort's un-plugged concert performance of Gluck's rarely performed opera Paride ed Elena under Paul McCreesh. Though some of McCreesh's transitions were unnerving, this account again demonstrated how very good his instinct is for the wider arc of an opera. Even by Gluck's standards Paride ed Elena has more than its fair share of recitativo accompagnato; barely an aria gets started before someone - either Paride (Magdalena Kozená), Elena (Susan Gritton), Amore (Carolyn Sampson), or Pallade (Gillian Webster) - interrupts it. But with playing of such consummate style and delicious texture, and singers as thrilling to watch and listen to as Kozená and Gritton - both of whom were nothing less than sensational - this structural urgency only intensifies the impending tragedy of Paris and Helen's politically disastrous liaison. A ravishing work that does indeed, as Iris Murdoch once said of opera, keep the Gods alive; if not McCreesh's under-utilised chorus.
'Manon': Opera North, Hull New Theatre (01482 226 655), Fri, then on tour