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Michelle Johnson as Manon [Photo by Kelly & Massa Photography courtesy of Opera Company of Philadelphia]
26 Apr 2012

Manon Lescaut, Philadelphia

It is Manon month in the Mid-Atlantic states. In New York, the Met is presenting Massanet’s take, while Opera Company of Philadelphia has just opened Puccini’s version: his first successful opera, Manon Lescaut.

Giacomo Puccini: Manon Lescaut

Click here for cast and other production information.

Above: Michelle Johnson as Manon

Photos by Kelly & Massa Photography courtesy of Opera Company of Philadelphia


The latter is a tribute to the company management, which programmed a work not heard in Philadelphia for decades in lieu of yet another Bohème, Tosca or Butterfly, and then overcame adversity to craft an enjoyable evening.

Opera Philadelphia often benefits from the remarkable number of fine singers trained in local conservatories—but rarely as much as in this production. When the scheduled soprano (Ermonela Jaho) cancelled less than a month ago, Texas-born Michelle Johnston, a 29-year old in her final year at AVA, stepped in, learned the role from scratch, and sang it with distinction. A grand finalist in last year’s Met national auditions, Johnston is a well-schooled singer with the most of the resources to tackle the singular challenge of Manon, whose evolution from youthful innocence through giddy greed to death in disgrace is mirrored by a vocal transformation from lyric to coloratura to spinto soprano. She was most impressive in slimming down her voice for the Act II minuet scene, complete with a (quasi-) trill. Given her youth and the rushed conditions of her premiere, it is perhaps inevitable that, earlier and later, Johnston sometimes seemed a bit cautious. Later in the run, she will perhaps cut loose more at the big emotional moments, such as the aria, “Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata.” Overall, however, this was a smart and sensitive performance by a young singer to watch.

Thiago Arancam is a 32-year old Brazilian lirico spinto tenor who started singing late and has been trained largely in Milan. He is a sexy guy on stage, with a voice both pleasant and intriguing, mostly due to its unusually dark color—a quality often thought to signal grand heroic potential. For the moment, he sings smoothly and in tune, if uniformly at forte. Yet the sound in the middle and lower parts of the voice lacks the mixture of warm timbre and clear ring Italian tenors prize, and sometimes fades out suddenly—a quality that suggests the tone is being forced. Even at best, the result, some robust high notes aside, his agreeable approach skims over subtleties in the character of the Chevalier des Grieux: his flirtatious serenade, sweet reflection on falling in love, and the gut-wrenching "No! No!, Pazzo son" all sounded vaguely similar. Perhaps Arancam—scheduled to sing this role in Dresden under Christian Thielemann in a year—will yet realize greater potential.

Manon_Lescaut_Phil_02.gifThiago Arancam as Des Grieux and Michelle Johnson as Manon Lescaut

Two character baritones supported the cast well. Daniel Mobbs continued his strong work for Philadelphia, seeming to inhabit to the character of Manon’s rich seducer and patron Geronte de Ravoir. Troy Cook was strong if a bit uneven as her brother. Cody Austin sang brightly as the student Edmondo, John Viscardi pranced menacingly as the Dancing Master, and John David Miles’s robust tones came out of nowhere as the Sergeant.

The production was vintage Philadelphia: realistic, colorful, and cost-effective without probing even the (relatively shallow) depths of Manon Lescaut’s libretto-by-committee. Still, it offered one interesting idea, namely a (mechanically-challenged) drop with projected paraphrases from of the literary text from which the story originates.

Music director Corrado Rovaris was largely in his element in this fast-moving score, with the orchestra responding brilliantly—better than I have ever hesrd them—in moments such as the police raid at the end of Act II. To be sure, one might have liked to hear Rovaris encourage the young cast to linger at other critical moments, but rubato is not his thing.

Manon_Lescaut_Phil_03.gifScene from Manon Lescaut

Given the success of this production, perhaps Philadelphia will now dare to extend its successful string of operas by 20th-century master Hans Werner Henze to include his unjustly neglected adaptation of the Manon tale, Boulevard Solitude.

Andrew Moravcsik

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