In the second act, a massive column opens like a giant jewelry box to reveal the quintessential material girl in a glittering gown, as worldly as Jessica Chastain on the Oscar runway. Behind her spread across the entire back of the stage is a painted Baroque sky of swirling clouds and cherubic putti. Oh Man, oh Manon!
Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s third opera but his first big experiment drawing together all the dramatic materials, heart throbbing emotions, and lush sounds that would become the composer’s hallmark. Like his heroine, he was finding his way in a world of abundant choices and delights. Puccini must have asked himself should he throw himself on the side of “more is better” that Wagner was pointing to with his orchestral size and sound or stay with a smaller, more Italian sense of melodic simplicity. Puccini, like Manon, would – naturally – choose both.
As an experiment, the story rambles and skips over key events and transitions in a bit of a hopscotch. It seems Puccini was less interested in dramatic coherence than in capturing four distinct snapshots in as many acts of a character mercurial in her emotions and fascinating in her complexity.
At the start of the opera, the naïve young girl, Manon, is being sent by her family to a convent to spend the rest of her days. On her way, her eyes are opened to a much bigger world and various possibilities to enjoy life by seizing its moments. Her beauty and her innocence, about to vanish forever behind convent bars and the veil, arouse interest and passion in several men who espy her.
The dashing Chevalier des Grieux offers her romantic love while the elderly Geronte de Ravoir holds out to this poor creature the promise of economic security and a life of luxury. She runs off with the first but then (we don’t see but are only told) her brother “rescues” her and makes her see life in a more calculating way. Thus the siblings both ensconce themselves in de Ravoir’s household. Still mooning over the man she let get away, the two lovers reunite briefly but are caught because Manon keeps scooping up jewels and “things”, baby. Sent to jail (only again we don’t see this,) she is misused at the hands of soldiers. In Act III, Manon and several other fallen women are herded along the docks of Le Havre and boarded on a ship to be sent to the wasteland of America as, one assumes, to copulate and populate the new world.
At the last minute, the Chevalier chooses to share her misfortunes and boards the ship with her. Alas, we don’t see the couple begin a new life together in New Orleans, but apparently her beauty nearly ensnares her again in sex slavery. Instead, we pick up Des Grieux and Manon having skipped town and wandering the hostile American wilderness, her body as well as her spirit broken.
To make manifest the story-telling aspects of this opera, based on a racy novel, director John Pascoe frames each act using a floor-to-flies “book” on which is projected key plot points of text. The “book” then gets torn asunder and slid off to either side of the stage to become rocky outcrops or various prison walls in Manon’s life.
Director and Designer Pascoe has delicious fun with the four settings and worlds of Manon, not so much treating them as geography but capturing the mood of each place (act) with a distinct palette of color and tone that reflects the inner emotional landscape of the central character. His choices become bolder and ever more successful with every act.
Lighting designer Ruth Hutson worked gorgeously with Pascoe’s ideas and lit the worlds with such effect I felt like gasping at the unveiling of each chapter in Manon’s life. For the first act, Hutson created the greeny-gold light of the market place outside the inn but then let it evolve slowly to a deep evening blue and starry night as Manon’s fancies turn to romance.
In this opening, just as Puccini wanted to express through Manon the youthful exuberance and hopes of a young girl seeing the world open up to her, Pascoe goes for broke stuffing the stage with groups representing all levels of society and stage business. The supernumeraries and chorus were so hyperactive that the scene devolved into chaotic milling like a day in Times Square with just about as many bodies steamily involved in “hooking up.” Maybe that was the point, but things hadn’t settled opening night, and not only was it hard to pick out the key characters visually, the aural balance between the chorus and the leads and the singers and the orchestra felt uneven.
Things righted themselves as the worlds and the work itself focused more surely on the key characters. Act II featured a sumptuous 17th century palace, a glittering but cold place. Hutson and Pascoe for the next act took their palette from Northern Europe painters and light to capture the rainy day and the dirty grime of Le Havre harbor. In Act IV, the red of the backdrop evoked a cross between a Wagnerian landscape and a scene from “Bonfire of the Vanities.” All the former pedestals and columns used in the show could be recognized but now lay broken on their sides, the wreckage of an imploded civilization.
Patricia Racette as the tragic heroine who has to carry this enormous character arc was very good indeed and kept sounding better throughout the evening. The soprano managed always to stay on top of both the music and orchestra as well as plumb each painful moment of her emotional descent. When she transforms from innocent to kept woman, she juggles well her conflicting feelings in the aria “Allons, il le faut” then flashes her heartless defiance later in “Obéissons quand leur voix appelle.” She also is a remarkably strong physical actress able to do the director’s bidding not only in molding her body to the great baroque serpentine poses required of the period but filling them with wrenching emotional anguish.
Her lover, the Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev, stepped into the role and was still finding his way into this production opening night. He couldn’t command the stage and risked getting covered by the orchestra in his lower notes during the first act. But as he began to crank, he demonstrated a sound strong and absorbing up top, doing all that a tenor must. The role is tough. It’s hard to believe this guy keeps coming back to a woman so materialistic and inconstant, and we need him to get pelvically more connected to this hot babe, which, when Chanev forewent his stand-and-deliver mode, got some pulses going. His performance in the second half of the evening promises the guy could nail this role.
A delightful surprise in the evening was Cuban tenor Raúl Melo, who saved Act I for me as Edmundo. His strong physical presence was matched by a clear sound that demanded one’s attention. The other terrific standout performance was Giorgio Caoduro, a true singer-actor, who played Manon’s brother Lescaut. He was appropriately lithe and rakish, and he filled every vocal line with a clear dramatic impulse. Somehow he made the role of a brother who fails to steward his sister through life’s temptations nonetheless forgiveable. Some nice cameos included Robert Baker as the dance master in his court dress who looked right out of the pages of one of those defining 17th century manuals.
Closes March 23, 2013
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
2 hours, 45 minutes with 2 intermissions
Tickets: $25 – $310
The schedule varies
Details and tickets
Music director Philippe Auguin, WNO’s music director let this rich music rip. There were passages I heard as if for the first time. If at the beginning it overpowered at times, it balanced as the evening progressed. I was delighted that director Pascoe let the orchestra have its own featured moment in the intermezzi when it played without stage distraction against a backdrop of waves indicating the passage of time. It symbolized for me that Manon and her lover did indeed share a tranquil period where their love was enjoyed and deepened.
The opera works as a parable and cautionary tale of being seduced by glittery things and a reminder that civilizations, like personal fortunes, can tumble. Hang on to love – and of course music. This opera will offer you both.
Manon Lescaut . Composed by Giacomo Puccini . Libretto by Domenico Oliva and Luigi Illica . Director, Set & Costume Designer John Pascoe . Conducted by Philippe Auguin . Produced by Washington National Opera . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith