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THE TIMES   FRIDAY JULY 6    2001    Barry Millington


Opera Holland Park has come a long way in the past two years. Now with a full professional orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, to support the rising talent that has always been a feature of the enterprise, the stage is set for performances of the highest quality.

The Manon Lescaut that opens on Tuesday evening is in any case strongly cast, with Susan Stacey and David Barrell in the lead roles of Manon and Des Grieux (they share the run with two other singers), but the weight of the musical drama is splendidly sustained by the RPO players under the impressive direction of Brad Cohen. His firm pacing of both bustling episodes such as the arrest and of the key emotional highpoints is a mayor factor in the success of the production.

Stacey has of course already impinged on the operatic consciousness and her performance here will have made her many new friends. Engaged and affecting, she sings out at the big moments with impassioned warmth. Barrell has not quite the same security at the top, but he sings with equal ardour and commitment. Simon Thorpe is a secure Lescaut, Stephen Garner an imposing Geronte, and Sean Ruane versatile in the multiple roles of Edmondo, Hairdresser, Dancing master and the Lamplighter.

Matthias Janser’s production updates the production to the early cinema era and Andre Walsh’s design consists of monochrome blow-ups of Manon’s face extending across the rear of the stage. The floor at the front is a correspondingly narrow strip, covering the width of the stage with a hazardous gap half way. Manon, with black rings round her eyes becomes a screen star, while Des Grieux has the sleeked hair and moustache of a matinee idol.

The colour scheme of black, white and grey is maintained throughout with the costumes drawing on imaginative variants. Only twice does colour suffuse the set – and with somewhat baffling results: a pink glow for the procession for the procession of the prostitutes and green for Manon’s Act 4 lament. It has often been noted that the first two acts of Puccini’s opera are more breezy than the gloomy third and fourth acts.

Janser’s production does nothing to smooth over the disjunction: on the contrary, much of what he does early on is a send-up: a Valkyrie-like breastplate and helmet for Manon, with spear for curling tongs, cut-out sheep for Geronte’s madrigal, and cut-outs of mitres, judicial wigs and military caps for Geronte’s high-ranking friends.

All good fun, but is when the work is taken seriously in the final acts, that the power of Puccini’s musical dramaturgy is truly felt.




London Evening Standard  4. July 2001


A dash of panache


By Tom Sutcliffe


PUCCINI  tells the story of Manon Lescaut in a fragmented way, as it is. Music is more focused than drama in his first of his mature operas. At Holland Park, the experience is primarily musical, which owes much to the added muscle and panache of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (even with orchestration a bit reduced). Brad Cohen’s conducting is elegant and poised, and doesn’t smooth over Puccini’s fugitive uncertain quality here.

The second act madrigal (with cut-out sheep and a large shepherdess’s crook) is limpidly atmospheric, thanks to Cari J Searle’s luxurious mezzo and the freshness of her accompanying quartet – all in awkward formal men’s suits and hats in Matthias Jasper’s self-consciously contemporary production. The orchestral intermezzo is wonderfully lyrical and sensitive, if a touch fussy. Another plus is David Barrel’s fervently mellifluous Des Grieux.

Unusually for Holland Park, Janser and his designer Andrew Walsh make an unapologetic statement with their approach. The front of the set is a kind of rampart, broken in the middle, covered in monochrome flowery wallpaper. The stage is dominated by images on two slanted flats of Manon’s eyes and her nose and lips. There is a vertical measure or rule at the side of the set.

The first scene is a rehearsal of a student fashion show. Chorus and minor characters figure strikingly. Janser’s direction is acute and distinctive (though his slightly airless concept is not terribly expressive or relevant). Simon Thorpe’s gangsterish Lescaut is bold and physical. Sean Ruane’s stylish Edmondo (also later hairdresser, dancing master and lamplighter) sings with crisp resonant focus.

The drawback of the first night cast is Susan Stacey’s vulnerable, rather dumpy Manon, an unlikely pick–up for Stephen Garner’s Geronte of for Des Grieux. Ms Stacey emotes generously but can go into shrieky overdrive under pressure at the top – exciting, perhaps, but uncontrolled. 



THE SPECTATOR     July 2001    Michael Tanner


Opera at Holland Park is always worth checking out, though under the canvas it can get oppressively stuffy, as it did the evening I saw a fairly good Manon Lescaut, considerably better both musically and visually than the performances I have seen in recent years at Glyndebourne and the Coliseum. This opera needs less tinkering around with than it usually gets nowadays, and an acceptance that all too much of the first two acts is padding. Here the performers had to leap constantly across a gap in the stage during Act I. They are Mafiosi, Lescaut wearing spats, Geronte a splendidly sinister figure, well portrayed by Stephen Garner. Everything is black and white for no clear reason. I saw the second pair of lovers, taken by Catherine Mikic and Dominic Natoli: they are vocally excellent, less satisfying to look at. Brad Cohen’s conducting rightly regarded refinement in this score as misplaced. The capacity audience was keen, and the whole occasion is, as almost always there, highly enjoyable.