05 Apr 2013

Manon Lescaut, Washington National Opera

Washington National’s 2012-2013 season continues this spring with a production of Giacomo Puccini’s first successful opera.

Dating from 1893, Manon Lescaut is an adaptation of the Abbé Prévost’s novel about love and loss in late old regime France. Puccini had to compete with Jules Massenet’s earlier adaptation, which premiered in 1884, but the young Italian composer felt undaunted by the dramatic possibilities that suffuse the text’s rich material. Puccini’s version unfolds more episodically, a prefiguring of “scenic” operas that would become so popular among modernist composers and, indeed, lend so much to film montage in the generation that followed. Opening with the rushed scene of passionate youthful romance, Manon Lescaut skips over the deterioration of the title character’s relationship with the ardent young Chevalier des Grieux in their Parisian poverty and takes us directly to Manon’s submersion in a life of luxury provided by the old roué Geronte. Massenet’s more narrative version takes her attempt to return to her poor but ardent lover into a complicated downward spiral; in Puccini she is merely arrested on what used to be called morals charges while wasting too much time gathering up her jewels. Massenet kills her off before she boards the ship that will take her into exile. Puccini allows des Grieux an impassioned plea to join her and she dies in the New World, in the “desert” outside New Orleans that makes for one of opera’s more exaggerated indulgences.

Both versions of the Manon story have the power to move their audiences to heights of melodramatic frenzy. Washington’s production is a reliable “can-do” approach. This revival of John Pascoe’s production dates to 2004, when the company performed temporarily in D.A.R. Constitution Hall while the Kennedy Center’s opera house was under renovation. The effort is quite literally a storybook one, with traditional sets and costumes narrating the drama within a stage frame created by giant torn pages from Prévost’s book. Traditional approaches to Puccini classics are well and good, but this one seemed peculiarly dark, especially in Act I, when the blossoming romance could easily have been brighter. The only hint of stylization comes in Act IV, when the Louisiana “desert” is suggested by broken statuary and artifacts of Manon’s lost life of luxury. It raises the uncomfortable question of whether Manon’s lament is for the love she could have had with des Grieux - unambiguously suggested by Puccini’s ravishing score - or by the trauma of having sacrificed her life of luxury for mere love.

Washington built its cast around the nationally well known soprano Patricia Racette. A competent singer, Racette has made a tour of most great Puccini heroine roles but is only taking on Manon Lescaut for the first time in this production. While no one can fault her professionalism, her performance came off as perhaps a bit too professional. The notes were delivered, the actions were taken. But she brought little fire or passion to this expansive role. And at times the voice did have to scoop to bring off ascents into what were not always attractive high notes. Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev’s des Grieux has a robust sound and featured some ringing high notes. But it lacked the elegance that real Italianate singing needs to be savored. Chanev, who makes his Washington National debut in this production, left the impression that his technique has room to grow; real star power may be elusive. A more impressive company debut came from the sturdy Italian baritone Giorgio Caoduro in the suave role of Manon’s brother, Lescaut. Jake Gardner, a third debutant, made the old Geronte an entertainingly real rascal. Company music director Philippe Auguin led a fine orchestral performance, one of the better ones in recent years. The chorus delivered fine music as well.

Paul du Quenoy

Click here for cast and production information.