The narrative gaps in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut are hard not to find fault with. In director Olivier Tambosi’s production, however, they can almost feel forgotten as part of its attractive and energised revival at San Francisco Opera. Tambosi gives powerful padding to its themes and an excellent team of singers presented characters of surprisingly impressive dimensionality.
|Lianna Haroutounian as Manon and Zhengyi Bai as the Dancing Master|
Haroutounian delved deep and soared powerfully with a glistening top range that sung of Manon’s flightiness, desperation and predicament. Manon Lescaut marks Haroutounian’s fourth role debut for San Francisco Opera, one in which her combined conviction and richness of voice cemented her stature on Puccini’s tragically drawn women. At first showing reluctance to look into des Grieux’s eyes, Haroutounian gave Manon a sense of aloofness and reveals her feelings measuredly to go hand in hand with Puccini’s music. Each new episode brings a compelling dramatic turn and Haroutounian emblazoned them all with operatic splendour. Manon’s Act 2 aria reflecting on the cheerful and secluded cottage with des Grieux was a particularly heartfelt reflection and a performance highlight in which she demonstrated extraordinary ability to manoeuvre through core emotional territory with vocal dexterity. But Haroutounian’s best was to come, on the way showing no signs of waning, in the gravity of Act 4’s “Sola, perduta, abbandonata”, where, alone in the desert as des Grieux searches for water, she contemplates her beauty and fate.
|Lianna Haroutounian as Manon and Brian Jagde as Des Grieux|
In Manon, des Grieux sees more, drawn to her by both her beauty and a heart hidden by sadness and to whom American tenor Brian Jagde gave vocal force of Himalayan magnificence. Manon’s destiny lies hopelessly in the hands of others and while des Grieux presses into her life as a welcome hero, even he cannot alter a course of doom. In Abbé Prévost’s novel of 1731 novel L'histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, on which the opera is based, des Grieux even precipitates it.
Forceful without showiness and having the physical presence that matters, Jagde whipped up unstoppable gusto as the valiant young man as emotions cascaded in thoughtfully targeted singing. With a tingling and wowing “Pazzo son!” that closed Act 3, as the captain of the ship sees des Grieux’s grief, Jagde gave substance to a moment in life when things change in a flash and let loose the greatest emotive highlight of opening night.
|Philip Skinner as Geronte and|
Anthony Clark Evans as Lescaut
What never seemed to disappoint was former San Francisco Opera music director Nicola Luisotti’s guiding hand in bringing much translucency and weight to the score. The warmly applauded intermezzo before Act 3 was a notably splendid affair that elicited reflection on the journey taken and on what would come.
As the production goes, Tambosi ups the frivolity with wit and the emotional barometer with agency as the plot heads towards a tragedy that has little chance of avoidance. In Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s marvellous scenic design, alluding to the story’s second half of the 18th century setting, Act 1 is a lively procession of village activity and Act 2’s stately blue boudoir in Geronte's house in Paris is busier than Bourke Street as all the comings and goings bore the pampered Manon. The gloom that hangs over Act 3’s setting near the harbour in Le Havre reveals the horror and indignity that brands a fallen woman and Act 4 is a heart wrenching end on the sparse set of the Louisiana plains, even if not one of the five librettists credited with the libretto explain how the pair end up there fighting death.
The narrative nuts and bolts, in the end, are well taken care of by Puccini. While Manon Lescaut doesn’t share the same dramatic mastery that was to come in later works, there are reminders aplenty in its score of the riches these future works harbour.
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 26th November 2019
Production Photos: Cory Weaver