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The Washington National Opera has billed its current year as a “season of divas”—about as imaginative a theme as, say, the NFL promising a “season of quarterbacks” or the National Symphony offering a “festival of music from Central Europe” (which, in fact, it did last year). Still, while the Washington National Opera has hardly ignored female vocalists in past seasons, the two productions in its current repertory are particularly flashy showcases for their respective leads, Patricia Racette in Manon Lescaut and Angela Meade in Norma.
Both women are formidable sopranos and throw their hearts and lungs into demanding roles. But it’s director Anne Bogart’s new production of Bellini’s pagan bel canto, Norma, that takes bigger risks in style and substance, and arrives at a greater payoff.
A revival of a 2004 production, Manon Lescaut is a safe bet done safely. It’s got all the pomp that opera fans like and that detractors of the form picture when they imagine everything they don’t like about opera: powdered wigs, gilded furniture, lots of mincing and bellyaching about 18th century first-world problems. It doesn’t help that the characters are to varying degrees repulsive: from Manon, a gold-digger who sings paeans to her eyebrows; Geronte, a degenerate old man (and tax collector, to boot); Manon’s brother Lescaut, who pimps out his sister to the tax man he sees as his meal ticket; to her true love Chevalier, a braggart-turned-doormat. The heroes are unsympathetic; the villain Geronte (bass-baritone Jake Gardner) less evil than entitled and annoyed with the world.
It’s an extravagant production, intentionally or not, appalling in its ancien régime excesses. The wigs alone, from the Batman ears sported by Geronte to the butt buns on the heads of a chorus of madrigals, are enough to inspire thoughts of revolutionary tribunals and guillotines. The set design is lavish if a little weird, beginning in a forest-primeval setting that makes Amiens, France, look like an Ewok village, and ending in a Satanic-red desert that apparently exists somewhere in Louisiana.
Manon is not without its charms, mainly Puccini’s score, effusively brought to life by Philippe Auguin and the orchestra. Too effusively, really: Augin brings out bucolic colors, particularly in the third act and the intermezzo that has been moved to follow it (director John Pascoe’s only real change in an otherwise by-the-book production), but at times smothers most minor characters and anyone who ventures into a lower register. The vocal balance isn’t aided by an overall weak secondary cast, including a flat-sounding Giorgio Caoduro as Lescaut. Racette, last seen here starring in the better-loved and equally cheesy Tosca, appears to be comfortable typecast as the doomed-to-die Puccini heroine. But her light, fluttery timbre, while effective solo, lacks heft, and leaves her at a loss in duets with the strident tenor of Kamen Chanev as Chevalier.