The glorious season for Welsh sopranos (in England) continued with soprano Elin Pritchard giving a sensational performance of Manon Lescaut at Grange Festival.
From her ability to transform throughout the Puccini work from school girl, to kept femme fatale and ultimately exiled and doomed victim of her own beauty, desire for glittering ornament and longing for love, she was as dramatically impressive as her singing heart-stopping.
The Stephen Lawless production was not all that we could have hoped for, the whole drama being a memory of the now older Des Grieux revisiting the school classroom where he first met the young Manon, on the eve of the Second World War. The wartime idea was maintained with her rich benefactor (for want of a better word) Geronte wearing a swastika armband in Nazi-occupied Paris, and old newsreel projected from women fraternising with officers to the the liberation and then reprisals against collaborators (including those women).
It was all okay but the work came into its own after the supper break when Manon was now in the hands of French victors now taking out their own dark revenge on those who they saw as undesirables.
Grown men (and women) pretending to be schoolboys in the classroom was a bit silly on the eye, and the smart car coming back and forward – our sort of heroine arrives in the back of rich man Geronte’s car in act one – was a little overdone. Perhaps it made the arrival of an old army truck in the final scenes to take Manon off to who knows where more poignant.
Elin Pritchard and Peter Auty
The decision to make her brother not only a pimp and gambler but also her incestuous lover was also an unnecessary manifestation of Manon’s sexual relationship with men and presumably psychologically damaged by her (big?) brother.
But this all fades into nothing when you have an actress singer of such strength, agility and vocal beauty as the Manon from Elin Pritchard. Captivating throughout, the final scene was gut wrenching, her duets with the emotionally thrilling Peter Auty, singing Des Grieux, edge of seat, while each manifestation of her not particularly likeable life was played superbly. Auty sings Pinkerton in Madam Butterfly at WNO this autumn.
Familiar to Welsh audiences from his work with Mid Wales Opera and Welsh National Opera (most recently in the dreadful 2016 version of Barber of Seville) Australian baritone Nicholas Lester acted a particularly roguish and quite spivvy Lescaut. He returns to the WNO stage in the much-loved Giles Havergal production of Barber this winter.
Stephen Richardson was calmly sinister and all the more menacing for it as Geronte, moving through the drama as a malevolent force until a “newsreel” shows him being executed by his compatriots after the allies give the French their freedom.
Because of Covid distancing reasons, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra playing Puccini’s score had been digitally recorded.
Main image Elin Pritchard
Images Simon Annand