Manon, Theatre Royal, Glasgow<br>Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, St John's Smith Square, London

Its gaudy sets may be courtesy of Ferrero Rocher, but fortunately Scottish Opera's 'Manon' is a feast for the ears'

Anna Picard
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:53

Powder and minuets. That was Puccini's ascerbic dismissal of Massenet's Manon, which premiered nine years before his own far dirtier and more desperate Manon Lescaut, and it holds partially true in Scottish Opera's new production.

As gaudily packaged as a box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and lit in hues that seem to change with every sentence of the libretto, Renaud Doucet and André Barbe's mirrored sets quote liberally from the period of Abbé Prévost's scandalous novel L'histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut without reflecting its sensuality or seriousness. It's a criticism that can be levelled at the score too, with its belle époque bourrées, its steam-age sarabandes, its Tour Eiffel of trills. But where the production team flounders, uncertain how to blend the Romantic and the Baroque, conductor Francesco Corti, orchestra and cast have found a style that accommodates both soundworlds: delicate yet lush, ornate yet clear and warm.

Manon (Anne Sophie Duprels) is here a pretty doll of a girl: naïve, vain, easily distracted, notably less sexual than Puccini's volatile heroine or her resolute cousin, Verdi's Violetta. Giddy with novelty, she is as intoxicated by the get-rich-quick glamour of the "actresses" Poussette, Javotte and Rosette (the excellent Sarah Redgwick, Catriona Barr and Louise Poole) as any provincial 15-year-old might be by today's Hermès-touting Wags.

Fluttering like a tiny bird, Duprels' generous, intelligent singing and ferociously engaged acting make this selfish, silly creature credible from the breathless "Je suis toujours tout étourdie" to the foolish farewell to her toile de jouy love-nest "Adieu, notre petite table", the public triumph of her Act III gavotte, the half-sincere, half-prideful seduction of "N'est-ce plus ma main?" in Saint-Sulpice, the cruel manipulation of Des Grieux at the gaming table, and the forlorn resignation of "Et c'est là l'histoire de Manon Lescaut".

Few actresses, if any, could better convey this character's vulnerability and obstinacy or maintain tension through her snail's-pace journey to candour, death and grace. If Duprels dominates, dramatically and musically, Paul Charles Clarke's severe, sturdy Des Grieux – more curé than cavalier – delivers a persuasive and steely performance. As Lescaut, here a hapless buffoon rather than the venal pimp of Puccini's opera, Benjamin Bevan's smooth, attractive baritone fits Massenet's stylistic hybrid to perfection, while Adrian Powter's icy De Brétigny has significant presence.

For all the clumsiness of Doucet's chorus direction (the worst I've seen for quite a while) and the clutter of Barbe's two- and three-dimensional period accessories, there are some clever details: Harry Nicholl's snooty emphasis on the "de" of "Guillot de Morfontaine" as he introduces himself, the 18th-century choreography of the Act III ballet, the easy flow of the spoken dialogue.

In the pit, the string playing is refined, the oboes ardent, the flutes as flighty as the heroine. Visually, this Manon is a mess: ill-focused, ill-disciplined, overly reliant on the symbolic heft of the fractured, cantilevered mirrors. Musically, it makes a surprisingly strong argument in favour of Massenet's delicate, difficult pastiche.

At the Lufthansa Festival, Charivari Agréable's programme of Oxford Psalms looked back to the simplicity of Archbishop Parker's Psalter and forward to the virtuosity of Purcell. Written on the cusp of the English Civil War, for private performance, the music is sensational, the rhetoric complex, the imagery of the poetry as violent as any cry to a holy war, the stink of political exasperation as pungent as a cesspit.

Despite this, the ensemble's graceful but indecisive haute contre, anonymous tenor and serviceable bass-baritone managed to deliver lines such as "Dash thy Childrens braines against the stones/And without pity heare their dying grones" (from John Blow's Psalm 137) in the manner of weary policemen reciting a list of minor traffic offences. Viol player Ibi Aziz was the only performer to respond to the words.

The band Sonnerie's selection of Handel and Purcell Airs and Trio Sonatas could not have been more different. Directed from the violin by Monica Huggett, with Robin Blaze's guileless counter-tenor gliding over the deep-green tides of consonance and dissonance from lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and harpsichordist James Johnstone, this was a thrillingly vivid recital. Baroque music often suffers from a one-size-fits-all sound. Here, bowing and tone were specific to each composer, each work, each phrase, each syllable.

'Manon': Theatre Royal, Glasgow (0870 060 6647) to 31 May, then touring

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