It is hard to write with a level head about something as lacklustre, dull and, in my view, plainly wrong-headed as ENO s new production of Massenet s Manon. The lack of enthusiasm of the audience says it all; a few bravos for the singers and conductor, a couple of boos for for the production team.
Entering any theatre to find assorted weirdos posturing on the stage at the audience (I guess we were in Bedlam) never bodes well, and so it was to be over the following three depressing hours. Tanya McCallin s designs comprise a slanting set of seating which is occupied by extras who watch the action throughout the opera. Lighting is brilliant white, with the lighting galleries visible at the back of the set, in front of a black cloth. This gallery is hugely populated at the start of the opera, by the fifth act only three remain - and who can blame them for leaving?
It isn t so much the cliché-ridden designs that irritate me, it s the utter lack of direction of the singers by the director David McVicar and his inabilty to make any of the characters come alive. (Dare I suggest that that may be Massenet s fault?) Who are these people? I m dying to know as they are all utterly anonymous within this perverse show.
So what of the music? As always, Paul Daniel leads a well-considered performance and nurtures his singers although, with temperatures in the 80s on the night, some of the playing was lethargic.
Manon is a role ideally suited to Rosa Mannion at this stage of her career, and how I would love to report that she shines through the production and sings gloriously throughout. Alas, she still seems to have major vocal problems (the same problems which beset her in Tales Hoffmann) and sounds unwell; top notes effortful and raw. Mannion is far too valuable a performer to be allowed to carry on singing roles like this which may damage her voice permanently. It is a depressing thought, especially as I have fond memories of her Violetta a couple of years back.
John Hudson sings Des Griuex with an Italianate rather than Gallic style but is undeniably the best singer on stage. He goes constantly from strength to strength. Ashley Holland is good as Lescaut and an excellent supporting cast does its best under the circumstances.
Still, all said, none of it makes this Manon worth enduring.