Remarkable Manon from Elin Pritchard at the Grange Festival

Soprano Elin Pritchard will remember this final performance of Manon Lescaut at the Grange Festival for the rest of her career. In fact, so too will the entire ensemble, such as was the emotion and sense of achievement in having delivered this performance, the conclusion of a unique season somehow created and performed in the most dreadful circumstances. But for Pritchard in particular the deafening applause and traditional foot stomping of the audience demanding bow after bow must prove unforgettable.

Artistic director Michael Chance and his team at The Grange Festival had a full theatre for this final performance, thanks to being a government experimental venue, and although the audience needed reminding (rather late in the day) they were encouraged to wear masks, the joy of sitting in a full auditorium was palpable. Then came the performance itself which, while lacking an orchestra for a recorded score and Stephen Lawless production being a questionable first two acts, was vocally splendid. However, post the long supper interval, the last half an hour of the opera was sensational and Pritchard’s performance stunning.

The setting of the work in France on even of war and then in Nazi-controlled Paris and eventually post liberation achieved by using projections of war time news reels interspersed with black and white film of the characters themselves, and on stage a swastika armband for Geronte as a collaborator, worked well enough. It was most effective as the opera came to its dark and heart wrenching close, when Manon and other undesirables were taken away on the backs of a lorry as the victors enjoyed their own episodes of darkness.

The concept of the work all being a memory of Des Grieux returning to the classroom where he first met Manon was a fine theory but grown men in school boy shorts as the opera opened was a bit ridiculous, and we had a litte too much of motor vehicles coming on and off the stage (particularly as one may well have suffered a dented fender as it exited the stage).

It is always a little tricky finding vast amounts of compassion for Manon Lescaut, as she admits herself she cannot resist the fine things in life and keeps compromising when it comes to affairs of the heart and the body. Yes, she is damaged and exploited although he near miss of having incestuous sex with her brother, jauntily played by Nicholas Lester, was maybe a romp too far.

But everything is forgiven when you have a Manon who sings like this and who demonstrates fine acting skills, which being in a small venue such as Grange are easily seen, each grimace, each sad eye, each look of disgust and despair. As her voice glided from charm and youthful delight to top notes so clean and clear that they cut straight to the heart. Behind my mask there were plenty of little swallows of emotion.

That emotion was also there is thrilling waves from Peter Auty, singing Des Grieux, with some eye-brow raising ventures into the high register, but always passionate. He suffered from the school boys in shorts characterisation for the first part of the opera but was far more convincing as the disillusioned and self-destroyed gambler, giving his all to win Manon and by those stunning final scenes with Manon he had won is over totally.

The most unpleasant role of the show is no doubt Manon’s brother Lescaut and Nicholas Lester acted his heart out in as this production which gave him all manner of personas as the opera advances, including, as mentioned his sister’s incestuous lover and not only her pimp. It was a change to hear him in this dark role as he has crossed my path as Escamillo with Mid Wales Opera and the Rossini’s Barber, the latter a role he returns to with Welsh National Opera’s threadbare season this winter. At least this time the Barber is the tried and tested Giles Havergal production and not the grim 2016 outing.

In the “should be boo or hiss” at the curtain call role of Geronte we had a calm and sinister rather than panto villain portrayal from Stephen Richardson. The chorus and players taking smaller roles, sometimes more than one, were in fine voice and clearly relishing being back playing to a full theatre.

Because of Covid distancing reasons, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra had been recorded and conductor Francesco Cilluffo had the unusual role of balancing these digital recorded tracks and the singers on the stage.

Images Simon Annand

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