Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, like its title character, is a shameless seductress. You can hear the still-young composer showing off his goods to the world: a mad tumble of indelible melodies and swooning harmonies, all bathed in his characteristically masterful orchestration. In fact, there are probably too many good ideas crammed into the roughly two-hour work, most of which whiz by with little time for development. But somehow it all feels right for a hormonally driven melodrama about a teenage girl who sleeps her way into the jewel-encrusted boudoirs of the French aristocracy, throws it all away for the penniless writer she’s in lust with, and winds up as vulture bait on the desolate North American plains.
In a way, Manon Lescaut, with its gobs of purple passion and Puccinian lyricism, was a natural choice for the Washington Opera—sorry, Washington National Opera, as it’s been redubbed by an act of Congress—to produce as its first show in the newly renovated Kennedy Center Opera House. Company Artistic Director Plácido Domingo is clearly a fan of the piece, having recorded many souvenirs in his younger days, when he was arguably first-choice casting for the leading tenor role of Manon’s writer lover, the Chevalier des Grieux. In the new WNO production (I tell ya, I’m going to miss “WashOp” as a moniker), Domingo’s on the podium.
Those who still view the tenor as an amateur when it comes to conducting should hear him in this work. Granted, more seasoned maestros could find a wealth of subtleties and finely calibrated balances that elude Domingo. But this bustling and mercurial score is no walk in the park for a conductor, and to Domingo’s credit, he taps into the music’s surging Romanticism. There’s a sensuous sheen on the strings in the famous Intermezzo, the brass blaze excitingly at all the climactic moments, and Domingo breathes so naturally with his singers in their big arias that you hear what Puccini is doing, not what the conductor is laboring to achieve.
He’s helped by the WNO Orchestra, sounding in particularly good form, as well as by the hall’s acoustic renovations. The Opera House hasn’t undergone the extreme makeover the Concert Hall did, but the orchestral sound has notably more immediacy and depth now, thanks to an enlarged pit, a set of acoustically transparent panels built into the wall surrounding the pit, and new plank flooring that replaces the old carpeted surfaces at the orchestra level. Domingo plays well to the new acoustic.
The hall treats soprano Verónica Villarroel quite nicely, too. If the Manon of this striking Chilean singer is more convincing as the beaten-down victim of Acts 3 and 4 than as Act 1’s convent-bound teenager or Act 2’s dazzling courtesan, she’s got the vocal chops to serve her throughout the evening. Her voice has a near-ideal blend of creaminess and tang, boasts high notes of body and carrying power, and takes on a hooded, melancholy tone in the lower register that gives it a distinctive color. If there are any reservations, they concern a certain sleepiness of phrasing—a lassitude bordering on lethargy—that at times suggests a disengagement with the drama. The effect is only compounded by Villarroel’s frequent blankness of expression. A flicker of inner fire occasionally makes it through the mask, but her eyes are hardly the mirrors of Manon’s soul.
Tenor Franco Farina does a bit better in the acting department as des Grieux, looking generally involved in the drama and cutting a far more dashing and youthful figure than he did in last season’s Aida. He’s got an exciting voice—dark, virile, and attractively grainy, with a passionate (if not exactly nuanced) ring throughout its range. His high notes are of the big-bang variety, beefy rather than sweet, and at times sound effortful.
If Villarroel and Farina begin to sound like less-than-ideal casting, that’s less a reflection on the WNO’s efforts than on the difficulty of finding singers for this opera today. The fact is, works written in the verismo (literally, “realism”) style of the 1893 Manon Lescaut require singers with cast-iron lungs, balls-to-the-wall passion, a born-there, sung-that feeling for the Italian idiom, and bagfuls of charisma. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if they’re hotties. Fifty years ago, verismo singers were thick on the ground. Now their breed’s dwindled to near-extinction. We may be living in a golden age of baroque countertenors and bel canto mezzos, but trying to find a knockout Manon and des Grieux is a bitch. Whatever it might say about Puccini singing nowadays, Villarroel and Farina—regulars in Paris and Vienna, at Covent Garden and the Met—have few rivals in these roles. Only Angela Gheorghiu and José Cura come to mind as clearly superior casting choices.
Among the supporting singers, Italian baritone Roberto Servile is a disappointment as Manon’s pandering brother, Lescaut, his lithe, chestnut-colored upper register notwithstanding. The voice pretty much disappears in its lower range, and suffice it to say, the guy’s no actor—a shame, really, given the dramatic potential in the character’s slippery ethics and ever-shifting insider/outsider status. Far better is the ever-reliable William Parcher, whose imposing bass and slyly turned way with comedy paint a lascivious, deliciously preening portrait of Manon’s geriatric sugar daddy, Geronte.
Credit for Parcher’s detailed character work must, of course, be shared with stage director John Pascoe, who moves principals and choristers about with fluidity and a knack for conveying narrative through well-composed stage pictures. His occasional surrender to semaphoric gesturing can be forgiven in light of the telling business he creates to illuminate character—best of all in Act 2, when Manon grabs fistfuls of jewelry to use as currency in her emotional maneuverings, rolls around on the floor with des Grieux, and makes Geronte confront his flaccid reflection in the glinting surfaces of her jewel cabinet. Pascoe understands Puccini’s earthiness: Massenet may have based his own Manon on the same Abbé Prévost novel Puccini was inspired by, but their interpretations differ. “[Massenet] feels the subject as a Frenchman, with the powder and the minuets,” Puccini remarked. “I shall feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion.”
Act 2 provides the evening’s most effective set as well, thanks again to Pascoe, doing double duty as the production’s scenic designer. Manon’s bedroom is rendered in gargantuan scale, with towering jewelry cabinets—vaults, really—and impossibly grand murals, all flanked by huge banks of black mirrors, floored in high-gloss ebony and overhung with a stage-wide guillotine blade. (The story is set in Paris, just before the French Revolution.) There’s an enveloping darkness to his design that suggests perpetual night, and, as evocatively lit by Joan Sullivan-Genthe, it seems the perfect, doom-laden setting for Manon’s arrest.
But in Act 1, designer Pascoe has way too much going on, with a “realistically” rendered quaint country inn (i.e., patently fake-looking wood, stone, and foliage) surrounded incongrously by the sleek, reflective walls and floor—which, like the guillotine blade, are permanent fixtures of the design—and backed by fuzzy, shifting projections that recall the worst of the company’s days in Constitution Hall. There’s a similar disconnect between those immovable, slick surfaces and both the port of Le Havre in Act 3 and the American desert in Act 4. And, adding a further layer of visual noise, Pascoe opens and closes each scene with a clunky, oversized parchment scroll that trundles into place to serve both as show curtain and as a screen for poorly edited video projections.
Pascoe’s program bio mentions his other career, as interior decorator to the stars. I can’t help but think that such a man would arch a skeptical eyebrow if a client suggested such a jumble of incompatible ideas for his living room. But then again, Puccini’s restless, oversexed, tub-thumper of a score is no less a jumble. And it works just fine. CP