Jenny Stafford shines as Manon Lescaut – despite ETO’s baffling staging

English Touring Opera's Manon Lescaut
Outlandish: English Touring Opera's Manon Lescaut - Richard Hubert Smith

Puccini’s first hit is a grim demonstration of how patriarchal Western society turns women into pleasure objects and then destroys them if they step out of line. In its first half the opera is also a sweetly sentimental story of a woman rescued by a poor student from a lifetime in a convent. For both of them it’s love at first sight.

It’s always tricky to balance the light, sweet-smelling first two acts with the implacable tragedy of the last two, where Manon – having temporarily abandoned the student Des Grieux for the rich man Geronte, whom she tries to rob – is deported to the USA and eventually dies while fleeing across the desert with the ever-loyal Des Grieux. This new production from English Touring Opera is almost an object lesson in how not to do it. Director Jude Christian decided to make the opera’s political message more “relevant”, as if Puccini’s opera wasn’t relevant enough already. She’s come up with a new translation full of clunky lines like “my synapses are buzzing”. The rhymes and stresses always fell at exactly the wrong place in Puccini’s tenderly turned melodies – but hey, who cares about musical values when there’s a political message to be megaphoned?

Jenny Stafford as Manon Lescaust
Commanding the stage: Jenny Stafford as Manon Lescaust - Richard Hubert Smith

Worse was the production, which Christian has described as a surreal nightmare but is better described as a surreal comedy. The square where Des Grieux first meets Manon has become in Charlotte Henery’s designs an emptied swimming pool packed with water dispensers, and the soldiers and students a gallery of contemporary clowns in garishly coloured, outlandish gear – the nightmares of contemporary capitalism, perhaps? – who strut and prance so vigorously they practically blot out the tender love story. The symbolism is laid on with a trowel: an implausibly chic white suit for Des Grieux to show his purity, a backdrop of shimmering gold lamé for the desert of the final act, an image of how money glitters but offers no nourishment.

Thanks to all this the opera seemed even more broken-backed than usual. But if the directorial concept is over-bearing, there’s no doubt it was put over with tremendous panache at the Hackney Empire. The chorus were in fine lusty voice, and the orchestra under Gerry Cornelius caught the way Puccini’s immortal score flips on a sixpence from tenderness to uproarious energy. Edward Hawkins clearly enjoyed portraying Geronte as a ludicrously camp pink-clad fop, and Aidan Edwards made Manon’s scheming cynical brother Lescaut seem unusually sympathetic.

As for the two singers at the heart of the drama, Gareth Dafydd Morris as Des Grieux was hampered by illness, but one could feel the bafflement and pain in his subtly coloured singing. It was Jenny Stafford as Manon who really commanded the stage, with impressive ringing top Cs for declarations of undying passion, and interestingly subtle moments when you could feel a dawning, regretful awareness of her own flightiness. Far from being a mere victim of the patriarchy, Manon came over as a strong-willed and complex human being – which, given all the distracting flim-flam happening around her, was quite an achievement.

Touring until May 27. Tickets: