Classical: Fall of a frail angel

Manon ENO, London Coliseum
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Bound for a convent, awakened by love, seduced by money, enslaved by greed, fallen to easy virtue. But at least Massenet's Manon doesn't end up like Puccini's - in Arizona. Not that it matters. Her eternal fascination lies in the manner of her fall from grace, the corruption of her innocence, her hopes, her dreams. Her creator, the Abbe Prevost, sent her out into a world he knew well, a world of vested interests, corruption, greed, and the souls of licentious men. Frailty, thy name is woman. Or was.

So we arrive at the London Coliseum and enter an auditorium heavy with the mustiness of a bygone age. On stage, richly attired but faded figures - phantom figures, the background detail in some old master - mingle aimlessly, watching us watching them as we take our seats. Are we the spectators or the entertainment? The stage itself would seem to be at the centre of some sort of arena, with banks of dusty terraces filling up with casual observers. The conductor, Paul Daniel, enters. The figures on stage applaud him as we do. And the "entertainment" begins. It's a dance, a mime-show. The young women take their partners. Except one. She is alone, left standing as in a game of musical chairs. She is scorned and ridiculed. She knows her fate. A woman without a dowry is predestined for the streets - or the convent. She could be Manon.

Welcome to the scrag end of the French Regency, reanimated as in a bad dream by director David McVicar and designer Tanya McCallin in this thrilling new staging for English National Opera. There's new meaning here for Shakespeare's contention that "all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players". Players and spectators - they are surely interchangeable in this selfish, cruel, heartless society in which Manon finds herself. Prying eyes watch her downfall with relish. They are everywhere, these pouting, preening voyeurs. McVicar's stage teems with incident, a makeshift society come back from the dead. Those that aren't participating, look on. There is no privacy. Young Manon - an innocent abroad - sits on her packing cases. She is easy prey, ripe for picking. A golden gown is draped on a nearby dress-stand. It's there to tempt her. This is her future.

And this is marvellous work. Hard on the heels of his recent Sweeney Todd for Opera North, McVicar once more demonstrates that great direction is all in the doing - ideas made flesh; motivation; execution. He clearly has the skill and the vision for a broad canvas and he loves the big gesture. For instance, the curtain that sweeps across the stage at the end of act two is like a final curtain, effectively drawing to a close Manon's domestic bliss. When next it opens, we see her destiny, fashionable Parisian society advancing downstage (a sea of fluttering fans) bearing effigies of their victims. But McVicar has a way with individuals, too. He gives them strength of purpose, pride of place. You won't see an aimless gesture on his stage. Dialogue, so often the source of major embarrassment among opera singers, is played here like it actually means something. Not just words, but sense, truth, feelings. When Manon and the Chevalier des Grieux are reunited at the close of act three, their passion is for real. Rosa Mannion and John Hudson aren't great actors but my goodness they connect.

Mannion's brave Manon clearly owes a lot to McVicar. The voice is still in trouble, technically "on the edge", short and pinched at the top, pushed at full stretch into an uningratiating hardness. You crave the elegant fioritura and bloom so synonymous with the French style. But she really makes the journey with this character, and in that she earns success. Vocally, though, the evening belongs to John Hudson, his best work yet for the company. His fleshy lyric tenor (and yes, there is plenty of heft in this voice) strives here for real finesse, a heartening less-is-more subtlety where even the small notes count. His act two Romance - scaled down to a beguiling intimacy - rightly won an ovation.

The image stays with me of Manon and Des Grieux locked in their final embrace, the searchlights, the cruel glare of Paule Constable's wonderful lighting (much of the show is suffused in a kind of candlelit glow) picking them out of the darkness. No privacy, even in death.

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