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'Manon Lescaut' at WNO

Patricia Racette (Manon) and Kamen Chanev (Des Grieux) in Manon Lescaut, Washington National Opera, 2013 (photo by Scott Suchman)
I have a weak spot for Puccini and especially for Manon Lescaut, the earliest of the composer's operas to remain in regular performance. It was the first opera I ever saw at the Metropolitan Opera, as an undergraduate music major visiting the big city for the first time (a story I have told elsewhere), and the experience set me on a course of opera obsession. In many ways, the score, premiered in Turin in 1893, is one of Puccini's best, showing him working out an understanding of the Wagnerian Leitmotif in his own way and not yet fully reaching the vulgar excesses of his later melodramas. So I was happy to see it on Washington National Opera's season, especially since I had missed the debut of this production, made for WNO in 2004. The chance to study the work again with a group of my students (in a class that I take to an opera dress rehearsal every year) was equally welcome.

As experienced at opening night, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Saturday evening, this revival is a success but far from a revelation. Soprano Patricia Racette had a solid role debut as Manon, youthful and sweet of tone in the first act, if not as refined as one might hope (in "In quelle trine morbide," for example), but with the needed power and dramatic presence for the main event of "Sola, perduta, abbandonata" in the last act. Kamen Chanev stepped into the role of Des Grieux at the beginning of the rehearsal process, to replace Marco Fabio Armiliato, who had just had a vocal surgery and was on medical rest. It was a competent, if not stellar company debut for the Bulgarian tenor, whose sturdy voice carried on the role's high notes -- in many ways, Des Grieux has the better music -- but was not always quite polished in terms of intonation or suavity. In two other company debuts, veteran singer Jake Gardner was an arrogant, rather ridiculous Geronte, while Giorgio Caoduro was less than elegant as Lescaut, a little vocally rough around the edges. In minor roles, Raúl Melo was equally rough as Edmondo, while WNO regular Robert Baker came close to stealing Act II as the fruity, snooty dancing master.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, WNO shows promise of things to come in ‘Manon Lescaut’ (Washington Post, March 4)

Philip Kennicott, Puccini's Manon Lescaut (, March 4)
John Pascoe's staging managed to be both disappointingly traditional (Pascoe's set for Act I, pictured above, looking like it could have come out of a Thomas Kinkade painting) and a little odd (a nice touch to have the Act IV desert a red-baked hellscape, with exploded fragments of the boudoir scene in Act II littering the bare stage). Stage-length mirrors hinted heavy-handedly at the element of self-regard in the story, and a video-screened parchment opened and closed, showing us the relationship of life lived and remembered in literature. This gave the sense of entering into the characters' lives through the book of Abbé Prévost, but also the sense of how an aria moment in an opera is a distancing mechanism, with some of the celebrated solos of the opera taking place in front of the closed book. Not that the modernized production by Mariusz Trelinski just mounted in Brussels (last day of live streaming is today) would have necessarily been better (Manon snorting cocaine and all), but sometimes a little outrage can be welcome.

At the podium, music director Philippe Auguin sounded a little impatient, although the fast tempi often gave the crowd scenes a good urgency. He is experimenting with a new seating arrangement for the orchestra in this production, with the strings and harp in the center of the pit, which yielded fine results in the Intermezzo and other string-centered parts of the score. Having the winds to the left and the brass to the right did seem to help with the balance, although there were still moments when the pit overpowered the stage.

This production will run through March 23, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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