Youth and beauty among the scaffolding

Manon Lescaut | Coliseum, London

The restoration of the Coliseum looks like it's begun. The auditorium and stage are shrouded in scaffolding and dust sheets. Walkways and ladders connect and encase the grand circle and proscenium boxes. And yet it's business as usual. On the face of it, a magnificent conceit. Just imagine if it were true: English National Opera renovating the theatre as part of its new season; 400 years of Italian opera excavated in a mere four months. In fact, the scaffolding will come down before it eventually goes up again. Designer Stefanos Lazaridis has locked into the archaeology of the season creating an "environment" in which we might strip away the present and uncover the past.

The restoration of the Coliseum looks like it's begun. The auditorium and stage are shrouded in scaffolding and dust sheets. Walkways and ladders connect and encase the grand circle and proscenium boxes. And yet it's business as usual. On the face of it, a magnificent conceit. Just imagine if it were true: English National Opera renovating the theatre as part of its new season; 400 years of Italian opera excavated in a mere four months. In fact, the scaffolding will come down before it eventually goes up again. Designer Stefanos Lazaridis has locked into the archaeology of the season creating an "environment" in which we might strip away the present and uncover the past.

And the past is present, the phantoms of the opera are there at the start of Keith Warner's new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut . A painted society, masked and unmasked refugees from a Venetian carnival watching us watching them watching us. They gather on the walkways, white faces caught in harsh lighting. Prying eyes for which appearances are everything. Gilded mirrors are everywhere. No one can move without catching their reflection. The student Edmondo (the articulate John Graham-Hall) serves as a kind of grotesque master of ceremonies. "Youth and beauty are what we live for!" he sings. "Love and longing are what we die for." The emphasis is on dying. And decay. In this society, youth and beauty are short-lived.

Almost the first and last things we see in Warner's staging is the image of a young girl - a young, innocent girl we later realise to be Manon. Edmondo offers her a golden carriage, a golden house, a golden sailing ship. Her destiny is already mapped out. But as Manon, the woman, makes her entrance down a golden spiral staircase, it's as if she is descending to a place from which there is no return. And there isn't. In a telling moment at the close of Act Two, the romantic Chevalier des Grieux, the love of her life, makes his break for freedom up the auditorium ladders while Manon, fretting over her jewels, has her escape route cut off. A gate slams shut and we see her for what she is: a bird in a gilded cage.

There is an almost reckless urgency about both Warner's staging and Paul Daniel's reading of the score which is of a rather hard-edged and chilly brilliance. The indecent haste at which this superficial society both lives and dies is well caught. Though I'm not sure anyone not knowing the opera will have made much sense of the narrative, given the symbolic and cluttered, deconstructivist nature of the production and - I'm sorry to say - the inaudibility of so much of Keith and Emma Warner's translation.

It may be that the orchestral sound, enclosed by scaffolding and dust sheets, has nowhere to go, but principals and chorus, often far flung around the walkways, were certainly up against it. Martin Thompson's Des Grieux responded by fairly chucking it out. This is a terrific voice with great potential, but he did rather overstretch the credibility (vocally, at least) of the character's impetuousity and ardour. Much more light and shade is required. But better that than all shade, which was David Kempster's problem as Lescaut. There's too much cover and too little bottom to this voice. Urgent adjustments needed there.

Nina Stemme's striking Manon would seem to have made many positive adjustments since her bid for Cardiff Singer of the World a few years back. The dark and interesting mezzo colour is very much a characteristic of the voice, but she's freed the top to exciting effect and can take the sound away and hold it within herself most affectingly. One point: her Act Two costume and wig were most unflattering, undermining, almost pre-empting her decline, her delusions in the desert where, one last time, she catches her reflection in the mirror and sees - the young girl. The "luminous glow of childhood", so soon snuffed out. Like those candles.

To 30 Oct (020-7632 8300)

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