Manon Lescaut in Stockholm

Musically, the quality of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut should not be underestimated. George Bernard Shaw, on hearing its first British performance, considered that it heralded a new development in Italian opera, moving it to something more symphonic and underpinning the dramatic content with Wagnerian leitmotifs. These characteristics are much in evidence in the current performances at Stockholm, authoritatively conducted by Marc Soustrot. His reading emphasised the structural qualities of the score, but not so as to inhibit the emotional intensity required for the large-scale passages; nor a finesse in the lighter aspects, notably for the pastiche of 18th century music in the second act.

The Royal Swedish Opera had assembled some fine voices. Most impressive was that of the Manon, Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian. It soared convincingly in moments of passion, but was astutely scaled down, with interpretive colouring, for more introspective expression, as well as for wry, humorous commentary on her responsibilities as a courtesan. As her lover Des Grieux, Sergey Polyakov displayed a tenore robusto of brilliance and power. But, unlike Miss Gregorian, he was reluctant to vary an unrelenting fortissimo. Perhaps conscious of the fact that it was in this role that Jussi Björling sang his final performances in Stockholm, he seemed more concerned with the sound of his voice than with what it was communicating dramatically.

Although the decors of Lars Östbergh was stylised, Knut Hendriksen’s production, first given in 2005, was, with its period costumes, largely traditional. It satisfyingly caught the flavour of the four very different tableaux, but did little to draw from them themes which might serve to unify the work. How, for example, does Manon’s earlier coquetterie relate to her subsequent downfall? What is one to make of Des Grieux’s short-lived experience of the priesthood? And, most fundamentally, what is at the heart of the tragedy: the exploitation of women by the wealthy? The hypocrisy of the ruling classes? In short, to match its musical achievements, this outing of Puccini’s early masterpiece required a stronger directorial hand.