Dorset Opera Festival delights with Mozart – but Manon Lescaut disappoints
MOZART’s great operas are rightly considered among the finest works of the operatic stage and Dorset Opera Festival demonstrated again this year just why they are so loved and admired. Last year, in a scaled down post-pandemic festival, opera-goers were wowed by their first DOF Mozart – a sensual and stunning Don Giovanni. This year it was Die Zauberflote – The Magic Flute.
The brilliant English libretto, updated and moved to a circus setting, was witty and clever. There wasn’t a weak note anywhere, from the three clowns (usually the Three Boys) to the saucy Three Ladies and the mighty bass, Sorastro (a great performance from recent Royal College of Music graduate Ossian Huskinson.)
The Queen of the Night – here the star of the high trapeze (not to mention the high Cs) – was Hannah Sawle, prowling and snarling like a caged tiger, with the evil and lustful Monastatos (Aled Hall) as her knife-throwing servant.
The leads, dazzling soprano Jamie Groote as Pamina and Ted Black’s Tamino, with his gorgeous tenor voice, were convincing in every detail, and had real chemistry as lovers at-first-sight. The opera’s other lovers, Papageno and Papagena, were, of course, show-stoppers – Felix Kemp was hilarious as the love-lorn bird-catcher and Caroline Kennedy channelled Mrs Overall to brilliant effect as his true love.
Conductor Jose Miguel Esandi took the glorious score at an energetic and exciting pace and the whole performance was, simply, magic!
A flat Puccini
If Pamina and Tamino sizzled, the same could not be said for Manon Lescaut and Des Grieux in the week’s other opera. Sadly, this production of Puccini’s tragic opera, based on the Abbe Prevost’s 18th century novel, fell flat, mainly because of the lack of any kind of credible relationship between the leads. The situation was not helped by a production that many in the audience clearly found baffling (it was obvious if you knew the story or if you had read the programme notes first – but how many people actually do this?).
When a director has a Big Idea, one thing is essential; the audience has to get it. Director Christopher Cowell had a big idea for Manon Lescaut – set the whole performance within the prison ship which will transport Manon – and Des Grieux – to exile in the French American colonies. So the action is seen in retrospect by the spirits of two (silent) doomed lovers (actors Iona Crampton and Eduardo Nunez), who are on stage throughout.
On the deck of the ship, patrolled by heavily armed guards, little groups of prisoners huddle in misery. A ragged young woman is dragged on, followed by a priest (the Abbe Prevost, Tony Kent) and by an anguished young man. There is only a brief moment when the two ghost lovers actually touch, but their chemistry is palpable. The chorus of prisoners becomes townspeople, singers, servants and more, observing and interacting with the central quartet of Manon (the stunning soprano Anna Patalong), baritone Gyula Nagy as her gambler brother, Eddie Wade as Geronte, the old man whose mistress she becomes, and Todd Wilander as Des Grieux.
The absence of chemistry between the two leads – Des Grieux never seemed even to make eye contact with Manon – left a vast hole at the centre of the opera, which could not be saved by Patalong’s glorious voice and affecting performance, nor by Nagy’s fabulously pantomimic (but characterful) Lescaut. The chorus and orchestra, under conductor Jose Miguel Esandi, were on splendid form.
by Fanny Charles, Fine Times Recorder