Festival Opera

Manon Lescaut

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce


WITH the epic prospect of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung on the horizon, this penultimate opera performance of EIF 2019 was a perfect illustration of the strengths, and limitations, of concert performances that have become essential to the Festival.

Although there had been a wholesale change of cast around American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky before this Deutshce Oper Berlin version reached the hometown of the company’s music director, conductor Donald Runnicles, she had very fine support from Jorge de Leon as Des Grieux, Thomas Lehman as Lescaut and Carlos Chausson as Geronte in what was a truly international cast.

In a Festival that has been distinguished by them, here was another stonking soprano in the title role, whose stage presence was as essential an ingredient to the success of the evening as her magnificent, show-stopping singing. Even her change of frock at the interval was the single concession to staging in a basic front-of-the-stage rendition of the music, scores on stands for some of the arias.

As a very fine programme note by Roger Parker lucidly explained, Manon Lescaut makes best sense in the Puccini canon as an essential stepping-stone to the genius of La boheme, and staging its wild geographical leaps remains a challenge, but a concert performance is all about the music, and the ravishing Radvanovsky shared that with the German company’s excellent orchestra and chorus.

The singers were faultless, and immaculate, although their trooping out and in from the choir stalls in the numbers required for specific scenes was a distraction, and their placing might have been better realised. The orchestra was precisely a pit band placed onstage, so that you could see what they were up to and it had fine solo players in the winds, a sparkling horn section, and some luscious ensemble strings. Since his departure from the BBC SSO, we see too little of Runnicles in his homeland, and this was a reminder of just what a fine conductor he is.

Concert performances of big opera scores were a feature of his time at Glasgow’s City Halls, but nonetheless this Puccini would have seemed a strange choice back then. In the context of this year’s Festival it made perfect sense.