WASHINGTON, March 5, 2013 – The Washington National Opera opened its current production of Giacomo Puccini’s first operatic masterpiece, Manon Lescaut, this Saturday past at the Kennedy Center Opera House with area favorite, soprano Patricia Racette, singing the title role. Uncommonly lavish for our current, budget-pinched times, the decadent sets and lush costume designs of John Pascoe—who also directs the current production—are, for this reviewer at least, what grand opera is meant to be: a brilliant, visual, period spectacle made memorable by fabulous music and elegant singing. This production boasts all of the above.
Set in pre-revolutionary France, Puccini’s opera is the story of a vain young woman who prizes jewelry and pretty things more than the value of love. Guarded by her disreputable gambler of a brother Lescaut, Manon is to be locked up in a convent by order of her parents, but steals away with a young poet, the Chevalier des Grieux, instead. This irritates the wealthy, politically powerful, but aging roué Geronte who has just paid Lescaut handsomely to procure Manon for himself.
Alas, love has its limits. Manon grows tired of her impoverished poet and winds up as Geronte’s mistress, lavished with with the jewels, finery, and endless entertainment she craves. But she quickly tires of the odious Geronte and still carries a flame for Des Grieux. When the younger man arrives to reclaim her, Geronte has her arrested as a prostitute and deported to America, and things deteriorate considerably from here.
Soprano Patricia Racette, luminous in her role debut, insightfullyly portrayed Manon as the confused young woman Puccini imagined—a girl who just can’t say no to finery. Her sympathetic, complex portrayal of Manon’s painful trajectory from ditziness to doom was carefully nuanced, eliciting genuine sympathy for her character who possesses here more depth and sensitivity than one might initially imagine. Ms. Racette’s vocal skills were even more impressive—strong, elegant, and deeply expressive.
As Lescaut, baritone Giorgio Caoduro was strong throughout. Again, like Ms. Racette, he brought a nuanced edge to his disreputable character, particularly in the final act where Lescaut tries his best to remedy the bad outcome he’s caused himself. Mr. Caoduro’s youthful-sounding instrument is particularly suited to this part.
As the loyal but hapless Des Grieux, tenor Kamen Chanev was well cast in his role as Manon’s suitor. Somewhat like his counterpart and sometime friend, Giorgio Caoduro’s Lescaut, Mr. Chanev lean, clean, youthful tenor and opennness of expression is well suited to this role. At times, however, either due to his placement on stage or to the surge of the orchestra, he could be a bit difficult to hear.
Baritone Jake Gardner’s sleazy Geronte was disturbing and menacing, the embodiment of a decadent—and doomed—French aristocracy that could be oily and cordial when it got its way, but vicious and petty when it did not. As des Grieux’ friend, Edmundo, Raúl Melo made the most of his brief, early solo opportunities.
The chorus sounded good throughout the evening. But again, like Mr. Chanev, they were occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra. The WNO Orchestra itself, under the baton of WNO’s music director Philippe Auguin, played superbly although occasionally too heavily to let the singing peek through. The orchestra was particularly effective during Puccini’s orchestral colorful intermezzo, which was moved from its usual place in the center of the work and positioned, more effectively we think, between Acts III and IV.
Rating: *** 1/2 (Three and one-half stars out of four).
WNO’s Manon Lescaut continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House through March 23. For tickets and information on this and other WNO performances, link to the Kennedy Center’s WNO web pages here.
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