27 January 2020

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Ruggero Leoncavallo — PAGLIACCI (C. Tanner, M. Whittington, K. Choi, T. Onishi, J. Karn, A. Dengler, J. Hurley; North Carolina Opera, 24 January 2020)

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor CARL TANNER as Canio, baritone KIDON CHOI as Tonio (hiding under table), and soprano MELINDA WHITTINGTON as Nedda in North Carolina Opera's January 2020 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]RUGGERO LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919): PagliacciCarl Tanner (Canio), Melinda Whittington (Nedda), Kidon Choi (Tonio), Takaoki Onishi (Silvio), Jason Karn (Beppe), Adam Dengler (Un contadino), Jerry Hurley (Un contadino); Kidznotes, North Carolina Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Keitaro Harada, conductor [Octavio Cardenas, stage director; Tláloc López-Watermann, lighting designer; Constantine Kritikos, set designer; Glenn Avery Breed, costume designer; Martha Ruskai, makeup and wig designer; North Carolina Opera, Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 24 January 2020]

Few people who have spent time in their midst have failed to observe outward manifestations of opera singers’ legendary superstitions. From avoiding certain situations to employing talismans, some singers perpetuate operatic lore, preferring the perceived safety of a curse thwarted to the uncertainty of a curse ignored. In the early years of sound recording, there was a fear among singers that, like withdrawals from a bank account, projecting their voices into gramophone horns irreparably eroded their vocal endowments. It is reported that not even Enrico Caruso, one of the most celebrated pioneers of recording, approached the acoustical preservation of his voice without apprehension, yet he recorded Canio’s familiar aria ‘Vesti la giubba’ from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci no fewer than three times in five years.

Canio was indisputably one of Caruso’s finest rôles, one that he sang 116 times for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, but what, aside from obvious commercial motivations [the 1902, 1904, and 1907 recordings collectively sold more than a million copies, still an impressive tally but a remarkable accomplishment in the first decade of the Twentieth Century], compelled him to record ‘Vesti la giubba’ repeatedly? [Interestingly, the first Canio, Parmesan tenor Fiorello Giraud, recorded excerpts from his Wagnerian repertoire, arias from Verdi’s Luisa Miller and Bizet’s Carmen, the popular Berceuse from Godard’s Jocelyn, and several Italian songs but none of Canio’s music.] A master of the music and an early beneficiary of global celebrity, Caruso clearly recognized aspects of Canio’s musical characterization that appealed to listeners. In the Twenty-First Century, Caruso‘s 1907 recording of ‘Vesti la giubba’ continues to be frequently downloaded and streamed, mirroring Pagliacci‘s indefatigable popularity with audiences. Perhaps Caruso was uncommonly prescient; or perhaps he merely knew good music when he encountered it.

The world première of Pagliacci in Milan’s Teatro Dal Verme on 21 May 1892, solidified Leoncavallo‘s reputation as one of Italy‘s preeminent composers and provided a cornerstone for the repertoire of the fledgling operatic genre of verismo. In its operatic context, the term ‘warhorse’ has developed a pejorative connotation, but, when used to describe Pagliacci, it can be interpreted as an affectionate moniker applied to a work deployed in battles against the disappearance of the passion that engendered Italian opera. Directed with commendable straightforwardness by Octavio Cardenas, North Carolina Opera’s staging of Pagliacci outfitted this warhorse with familiar but fresh vestments. Especially admirable was Cardenas’s blocking: principals and choristers moved convincingly, not in the manner of wooden figures on a carousel, predictably but aimlessly entering and exiting, but as denizens of a functioning community. There was a naturalness of movement that lent the drama a gripping aura of spontaneity. Cardenas’s Pagliacci epitomized the finest qualities of traditional productions. By faithfully but imaginatively observing the dictates of Leoncavallo’s libretto and score, this staging exuded an authenticity that productions that seek inspiration beyond the composer’s work often lack.

Illuminated by Tláloc López-Watermann’s typically effective lighting, Constantine Kritikos’s scenic designs, the appropriately middle-class costumes by Glenn Avery Breed, and Martha Ruskai’s attractive wigs and makeup vividly transformed the Raleigh stage into Leoncavallo’s Calabrian village. Both the grandeur of the public scenes and the intimacy of Nedda’s encounters with Tonio and Silvio were captivatingly realized, the former retaining clarity in moments of greatest tumult and the latter perceptively limning the complex relationships among the characters. Pagliacci can be interpreted as a variation on the oft-explored theme of artists’ isolation from society, but this production embodied the objective announced by Tonio in the Prologo. Their commedia dell’arte theatrics notwithstanding, the principals in this Pagliacci were ordinary people facing extraordinary but recognizably universal troubles, their lives neither glorified nor derided.

IN REVIEW: soprano MELINDA WHITTINGTON as Nedda (center left) and tenor CARL TANNER as Canio (center right) in North Carolina Opera's January 2020 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Coniugi condannati: soprano Melinda Whittington as Nedda (center left) and tenor Carl Tanner as Canio (center right) in North Carolina Opera’s January 2020 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

Under the baton of conductor Keitaro Harada, North Carolina Opera’s choral and orchestral forces distinguished themselves with superb performances. Virtually every instrument in the orchestra is subjected to writing that tests its player’s technique and preparedness, and, the instrumentalists skillfully cued by Harada, there were very few moments in which the orchestra’s intonational and rhythmic precision faltered. Scott MacLeod’s work with the North Carolina Opera Chorus, assisted in this production by Nick Malinowski’s training of the Kidznotes children’s chorus, yielded exhilarating but unerringly musical accounts of the difficult Chorus of the Bells and the opera’s final scene. Performances by larger companies with long-established acquaintances with Leoncavallo’s music can rarely boast of choral singing and orchestral playing superior to those heard in North Carolina Opera’s Pagliacci.

Returning to Raleigh, where he conducted North Carolina Opera’s 2019 production of Bizet’s Carmen, Maestro Harada displayed a thorough and uncommonly discerning understanding of the nuances of Leoncavallo’s score. The music‘s corpuscular verismo thundered from stage and pit, but Harada’s handling of lyrical passages revealed the bel canto that blossoms within the score. The Andante cantabile section of Tonio’s Prologo, the opening of Nedda’s Ballatella, Silvio’s outpouring of affection, and Canio’s ‘Sperai, tanto il delirio accecato m’aveva’ were shaped with poetic delicacy, the conductor encouraging the singers to communicate not just the literal meanings but also the emotional subtleties of the words via expansive, unhurried phrasing. These episodes of relative introspection intensified the shock of the opera’s violent climax, Canio’s ultimate acts of vengeance depicted as the primal response of a broken man to circumstances that he cannot alter. Even when haphazardly conducted, Pagliacci is invariably entertaining and often exciting. Harada’s exquisite conducted proved that, when paced with absolute cognizance of its structures, sentiments, and subtexts, Pagliacci can also be genuinely moving.

Heightening the carnival-like atmosphere of the commedia dell’arte players’ fateful visit to the unnamed town in which the drama transpires, acrobats Rachel Webberman and Matthew Berno brought off their gravity-defying feats with feline grace. Baritone Adam Dengler and tenor Jerry Hurley sang impressively as the pair of villagers who extended their community’s hospitality to Canio, evincing the townspeople‘s pride at hosting the venerable thespians. Tenor Jason Karn was a charismatic Beppe in Opera Carolina’s 2016 production of Pagliacci and was no less charming in Raleigh. That he sang the top As in Arlecchino’s serenata so effortlessly whilst perched on a worryingly unsteady utility pole was indicative of the musical and dramatic unflappability with which he portrayed the hardworking, level-headed Beppe.

The scene for Nedda and her paramour Silvio contains some of Leoncavallo’s most impassioned writing, the lovers’ illicit rendezvous inspiring the composer to create several of Italian opera’s most luridly erotic pages. In baritone Takaoki Onishi’s performance in Raleigh, the depth of Silvio’s love for Nedda and the magnetism that drew her to him were palpable. Declaiming ‘Nedda, Nedda, decidi il mio destin’ with ardor and handsomely virile tone, Onishi characterized Silvio as a man whose desire for Nedda was unquestionably carnal but also viscerally spiritual. There was a pervasive sense of yearning in this Silvio’s singing, as though he was as desperate to escape from his own struggles as Nedda was to gain her freedom, but the true hallmarks of Onishi’s vocalism were the evenness of registers, the youthful ease of his ascents above the stave, and the consistent beauty of his timbre. Aided by Harada, he sang ‘E allor perchè, di’, tu m’hai stregato’ arrestingly, caressing the line with ideally-supported mezza voce, and the hushed ending of the duet with Nedda was gorgeous. In Onishi’s performance, Silvio’s lunge at Canio in the opera’s final moments was more anguished than threatening: Nedda having been slain before his eyes, his life was already at its end. Vulnerability was at the core of Onishi’s characterization, and, unusually, Silvio’s death was as wrenching as Nedda’s.

Similarly, keen focus on all of the character’s psychological facets was the foundation of baritone Kidon Choi’s portrayal of the pernicious but pitiable Tonio. From the first words of the Prologo, it was apparent that Choi is a very gifted singing actor, but he surpassed his own standards with each successive phrase. At once bemused, flippant, scornful, and piercingly sincere, he sang the music with immediacy that recalled Giuseppe Taddei’s saturnine portrayal and soared without strain to the interpolated top A♭ and G. Throughout Canio’s banter with the townsfolk, Choi’s Tonio lurked on the periphery of the action, biding his time. Finally alone with Nedda, he declared his love with an outcast’s awkward earnestness, voicing ‘So ben che lo scemo contorto son io’ with touching tenderness. Wounded by the viciousness of Nedda’s rejection, he flung ‘Per la croce di Dio, bada che puoi pagarla cara!’ at her like lasso with which he intended to ensnare her. Choi played Taddeo’s part in the farsa with the self-congratulatory artifice of a man who feels his grip on revenge tightening. Tonio’s sadistic laughter as the curtain fell on the scene of Canio cradling Nedda’s lifeless body was chilling. Dramatically, Choi was an atypically expressive Tonio who repulsed all the more for having divulged the humanity of which he was capable. Vocally, he sang the rôle with the sort of inherent suitability that has been seldom heard in this music in the past quarter-century.

IN REVIEW: tenor CARL TANNER as Canio in North Carolina Opera's January 2020 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Pagliaccio non ride: tenor Carl Tanner as Canio in North Carolina Opera’s January 2020 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

In the course of Pagliacci’s nearly-thirteen-decade performance history, the opera’s leading lady has been sung by an array of voices that parallels the diversity of singers’ interpretations of the rôle. In many ways, soprano Melinda Whittington’s performance with North Carolina Opera was often reminiscent of the free-spirited Nedda of Maralin Niska. Emboldened by her longing for liberation from her failed marriage, this Nedda’s resolve was undermined by her fear for Silvio’s safety. Whittington’s ruminative utterance of ‘Confusa io son’ in the wake of Canio’s ‘Un tal gioco, credetemi’ echoed this ambiguity, the young woman’s trepidation visible beyond the façade of her fortitude. As Nedda sought refuge in memories of her childhood, Whittington sang ‘Qual fiamma avea nel guardo’ with abandon, imparting the wonderment that surges from the music. Leoncavallo sanctioned omission of the trills that launch the Ballatella, but Raleigh’s Nedda resorted to no amendments, valiantly attempting the trills and resolving her rousing ‘Stridono lassù’ with a radiant top A♯.

The contempt with which Whittington declaimed ‘Hai l’animo siccome il corpo tuo difforme, lurido!’ was more crippling than Tonio’s physiological challenges, Nedda’s disgust hurled at him with vehemence. In the subsequent duet with Silvio, however, the soprano’s performance manifested warmth and femininity. Her voicing of ‘Non mi tentar! Vuoi tu perder la mia vita?’ throbbed with anxiety. Whittington metamorphosed her Nedda into a comical Colombina without jeopardizing the caliber of her vocalism. The commedia dell’arte feigning shattered by Canio’s rage, this Nedda was visibly affected by her husband’s despair: she may never have loved him, but she seemed to at least regret hurting him. Crowning Nedda’s final defiance with a brilliant top B, Whittington depicted the character’s death with startling realism. Occasionally, the wide intervals in Leoncavallo’s writing compromised the soprano’s vocal support, focus on projecting the upper register diminishing the solidity of tones in the lower octave of the range, but Whittington both sang and acted intelligently and poignantly.

It was only six months after his professional début that Fiorello Giraud introduced Canio to the world. Though the last years of his career were largely devoted to singing Heldentenor repertoire, it was as Canio that Giraud made his most lasting contribution to operatic history. Continuing Giraud’s legacy, Canio was an iconic rôle for Italian tenors from Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, and Giovanni Martinelli to Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, and Carlo Bergonzi. It was not until 4 January 1908, fourteen years after Pagliacci’s company première on 11 December 1893, that an American tenor, the Kentucky-born Riccardo Martin, first donned Canio’s greasepaint at the Metropolitan Opera. Thereafter, American tenors of the caliber of James McCracken, Herman Malamood, and Richard Tucker have portrayed Canio to acclaim throughout the world.

A lauded exponent of parts as demanding but different as Radamès in Verdi’s Aida, Calàf in Puccini’s Turandot, and Saint-Saëns’s Samson, the last of which he sang in North Carolina Opera’s 2018 concert performance of Samson et Dalila, Carl Tanner brought to Raleigh’s production of Pagliacci a refined, powerful portrayal of Canio. Presenting himself to the audiences on stage and in the auditorium, Tanner voiced ‘Un grande spettacolo a ventitré ore’ electrifyingly, the metal in the voice shimmering. The villager’s quip about marital infidelity striking an aggravated nerve, menace blended with pain in his singing of ‘Un tal gioco, credetemi.’ The stunning top B with which Tanner’s Canio reminded the villagers of the hour of the evening’s performance befitted a consummate showman.

Lured by Tonio into interrupting Nedda’s assignation with Silvio, this Canio ruthlessly pursued first his wife’s fleeing lover and then her confession of the affair. Tanner sang ‘E se in questo momento qui scannata non t’ho’ as though Canio was barely able to articulate the words. Canio’s soliloquy is one of opera’s most familiar—and most parodied—scenes, but, prefaced by a forceful but unexaggerated traversal of ‘Recitar! Mentre preso dal delirio,’ Tanner’s performance achieved Shakespearean eloquence. He sang ‘Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina’ gloriously, exclaiming ‘Ridi, Pagliaccio!’ vigorously but without overwrought histrionics.

Jettisoning pretense in the opera’s final scene, this Canio’s declaration of ‘No, Pagliaccio non son’ was terrifying, but it was with his singing of ‘Sperai, tanto il delirio accecato m’aveva’ that Tanner most tellingly bared Canio’s soul. Deprived of reason by blinding pride and fury, Canio fulfilled the rôle assigned to him by Tonio’s machinations. In Tanner’s portrayal, killing Nedda was both Canio’s crime and his punishment, and the conspicuous remorse in the tenor’s adoring embrace of Nedda’s corpse markedly intensified the opera’s tragic ending. At the center of a cast without weakness, Tanner was the pillar upon which North Carolina Opera built a spectacular Pagliacci.

05 January 2020

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gian Carlo Menotti — AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS (P. Webb, S. Foley Davis, J. R. Wright, R. Wells, D. Hartmann, F. Bunter; Greensboro Opera, 19 December 2019)

IN REVIEW: the cast of Greensboro Opera's December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti's AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS, with dancers CHELSEA HILDING and D. JEROME WELLS in the foreground [Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]GIAN CARLO MENOTTI (1911 – 2007): Amahl and the Night Visitors — Phillip Webb (Amahl), Stephanie Foley Davis (Mother), Jacob Ryan Wright (Kaspar), Robert Wells (Melchior), Donald Hartmann (Balthazar), Forrest Bunter (Page); Greensboro Opera Amahl Chorus and Orchestra; David Holley, Conductor, Producer, and Stage Director [Jeff Neubauer, Lighting Designer, Technical Director, and Stage Manager; Trent Pcenicni, Wigs and Makeup Designers; Michael Job, Choreographer; Greensboro Opera, Well•Spring, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Thursday, 19 December 2019]

It may have been the French who first aphorized that good things can emerge from small packages. Wherever this conceit originated, its validity is apparent in virtually all aspects of life and art. By operatic standards, a title rôle written for a juvenile singer, a score with a running time of less than an hour, and a libretto of conversational concision indisputably qualify Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors as a small package. Commissioned by America’s National Broadcasting Company, the first performance of Menotti’s small package of an opera inaugurated the long-running Hallmark Hall of Fame television series on 24 December 1951, broadcasting from NBC’s Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the space from which Arturo Toscanini’s celebrated performances with the NBC Symphony Orchestra were transmitted and where Saturday Night Live continues to be staged.

The first new opera aired by NBC Opera Theatre, Amahl and the Night Visitors remains the most successful of the pieces that were written especially for NBC telecasts. Bringing Menotti’s tale of the intersection of the lives of an impoverished boy and his mother with the narrative of Christ’s nativity to both the lovely theater in Greensboro’s Well•Spring community and Lexington’s Edward C. Smith Civic Center, the revival of Greensboro Opera’s much-admired production of Amahl and the Night Visitors validated that this innovative opera is a small package that yields great things.

When discussing Amahl and the Night Visitors Menotti was candid about his struggle to choose a subject to fulfill NBC’s commission and the sources of inspiration that ultimately produced the piece. Citing a recollection of holiday traditions familiar from his childhood that was spurred by viewing an image of the Adoration of the Magi painted by Hieronymous Bosch in the last quarter of the Fifteenth Century [the long-disputed attribution of the single panel that Menotti saw in New York’s Metropolitan of Art, a work unrelated to the triptych in the collection of Madrid’s Museo del Prado, to Bosch was legitimized by scholars in 2016], the composer intimated that the work was an affectionate homage to the innocent wonderment of his youth.

Writing his own libretto and completing the score mere days before the opera’s première, Menotti enlisted the aid of his partner, Samuel Barber, in orchestrating the music. His previous short operas Amelia Goes to the Ball, The Old Maid and the Thief (commissioned by NBC for radio broadcast), The Medium, and The Telephone identified Menotti as a master of opera in miniature, these pieces limning emotional and dramatic complexities with brevity. Contrasting the desperation and despair of Amahl and his mother with the vivid, sometimes comedic idiosyncrasies of the three kings, Menotti created in an opera that runs for only forty-five minutes a remarkably cogent work of art. Alongside other composers’ hours-long musical orations, Amahl and the Night Visitors is Menotti’s operatic Gettysburg Address.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano STEPHANIE FOLEY DAVIS as Mother in Greensboro Opera's December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti's AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS [Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]Maternal devotion: mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as Mother in Greensboro Opera’s December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]

Like Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, another work conceived as an entertainment for youngsters that was handsomely staged at Well•Spring by Greensboro Opera [reviewed here], Amahl and the Night Visitors transcends the implicit limitations imposed by its target audience. Too many productions succumb to temptations either to bloat the opera with dogmatic evangelizing or to entomb Menotti’s endearing story behind a façade of family-friendly kitsch, but Amahl and the Night Visitors is neither Wagnerian drama nor childish frivolity. Principal amongst the virtues of Greensboro Opera’s General and Artistic Director David Holley’s production of Amahl was its dedication to presenting the piece on its own terms, avoiding the pitfalls of extrapolated political and religious subtexts. To his credit, Holley retained Amahl’s astonished declaration that one of the kings at the door is Black, which here was precisely what Menotti intended it to be—a child’s guileless observation and nothing more.

The audience’s attention focused by Robert Hansen’s simple but effective scenic design on the relationship between Amahl and his despondent mother, Holley’s direction employed understated motion to advance the plot. Deborah Bell’s costumes and Trent Pcenicni’s wigs and makeup, aptly rustic for the shepherds and magnificently opulent for the three kings, ensured that differentiations between poor and rich were unmistakable, yet there was no impression of condescension or class strife. Rather, Holley’s staging emphasized the common humanity shared by all of the characters. Executed with grace and athleticism by Chelsea Hilding and D. Jerome Wells, Michael Job’s choreography complemented the production’s aesthetic by offering the shepherds’ dance as an earnest entertainment for the weary visitors. Integral to the show’s success were Jeff Neubauer’s lighting designs and technical direction. The use of light is particularly important in an opera in which a star is virtually a member of the cast, and, elucidating the fidelity to Menotti’s vision that was the core of Holley’s direction, Neubauer’s work shone brightly, literally and figuratively.

From the first bar of the opera’s Andante sostenuto opening to the overwhelmed mother’s bittersweet vigil as she watched her son depart with the magi in search of Christ in the final scene, Holley’s conducting combined rhythmic tautness with affectionate lyricism. Having sung Amahl in his youth, Holley brought to this performance career-long acquaintance with the score. In this instance, familiarity engendered not contempt but commitment to continuing to deepen his comprehension of the piece. Not least in the superb quartet for Amahl’s mother and the kings, in which his pacing allowed the singers to fully explore the gravitas of the music, Holley’s tempi gave the performance a firm pulse. Paralleling his direction of the production, Holley’s conducting of the performance yielded engaging clarity, disseminating the score’s poignant messages of tolerance and compassion from page to stage to audience with unfeigned eloquence and unflagging musicality.

Menotti’s and Barber’s orchestrations provide some of Amahl’s greatest delights, but the incisive playing of an imaginative arrangement for an ensemble considerably smaller than the full symphony orchestra at Menotti’s disposal when the opera was written served the composer and his composition splendidly. Oboist Thomas Turanchik, harpist Gerry Porcaro, percussionist Erik Schmidt, and pianist Emily Russ performed their parts as though they, like the portentous star, were joining the cast on stage, their phrasing so synchronized with that of the singers that instruments and voices sometimes seemed to emerge from a single entity. The choristers, many of whose fine voices were familiar from UNCG Opera Theatre’s recent production of Die Fledermaus and Greensboro Opera’s November 2019 staging of Pagliacci, sang Menotti’s music for the shepherds rousingly, the elation of their depiction of the community’s collective awe never impeding the accuracy of their intonation. Though the rôle of the magi’s page offers few opportunities for vocal display, another talented member of UNCG’s operatic family, baritone Forrest Bunter, denounced Amahl’s mother for her attempted theft of Melchior’s gold with rousing immediacy.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) treble PHILLIP WEBB as Amahl, mezzo-soprano STEPHANIE FOLEY DAVIS as Mother, tenor JACOB RYAN WRIGHT as Kaspar, bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Balthazar, and baritone ROBERT WELLS as Melchior in Greensboro Opera's December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti's AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS [Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]Strangers at the door: (from left to right) treble Phillip Webb as Amahl, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as Mother, tenor Jacob Ryan Wright as Kaspar, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Balthazar, and baritone Robert Wells as Melchior in Greensboro Opera’s December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]

Entering through the house whilst resonantly intoning ‘From far away we come and farther we must go,’ Greensboro Opera’s Three Kings exhibited regal presence that made their night visit to Amahl and his mother an event that merited summoning the community of shepherds. Bass-baritone Donald Hartmann’s Balthazar was a benevolent presence with a voice that exuded august authority. There was humor in his singing of ‘I live in a black marble palace,’ however, and his utterance of ‘Thank you, good friends’ conveyed genuine gratitude. This Balthazar’s interactions with Amahl increasingly evinced paternal tenderness, the king perceptibly humbled by observing the boy’s hardships. Ever an artist whose characterizations are uncommonly nuanced, Hartmann characterized Balthazar as a man whose majesty transcended thrones and titles.

The quirky, hard-of-hearing Kaspar was endearingly portrayed by tenor Jacob Ryan Wright, whose ebullient singing of ‘This is my box’ imparted gentleness rather than obnoxious possessiveness, this good-hearted king regarding the prized item as an object of comfort and stability. Some singers’ depictions of Kaspar’s auditory challenges are distractingly overwrought, exaggeratedly played for laughs, but Wright avoided this sort of silliness, preferring a playful but dignified reading of the part.

Baritone Robert Wells completed the triumvirate of magi with a poised, prognosticatory performance as Melchior. The query that he posed to Amahl’s mother, ‘Have you seen a child the color of wheat,’ was voiced with pointed anticipation, and the prophetic consequence of the vivid imagery of ‘The child we seek holds the seas’ was heightened by the singer’s burnished vocalism. The sensitivity with which Wells sang ‘Oh woman, you may keep the gold’ lent the king’s magnanimity plausibility. Like his crown-bearing colleagues, Wells ignored stereotypes, devising a notably personal portrait of Melchior.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano STEPHANIE FOLEY DAVIS as Mother (left) and treble PHILLIP WEBB as Amahl (right) in Greensboro Opera's December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti's AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS [Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]Family affair: mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as Mother (left) and treble Phillip Webb as Amahl (right) in Greensboro Opera’s December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]

Greensboro Opera’s Amahl had in mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis a mother who sang Menotti’s music with remarkable ease and spontaneity, song seeming more natural for the character than speech. Whether portraying the cunning Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Humperdinck’s Hänsel, Cio-Cio San’s loyal companion Suzuki in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, or Amahl’s mother, Foley Davis manifests an exceptionally broad spectrum of emotions via singing of beauty and technical expertise. The exasperation felt by Amahl’s mother coursed through the mezzo-soprano’s voicing of ‘All day long you wander about in a dream,’ but, here and in both ‘Dear God, what is a poor widow to do’ and ‘What shall I do with this boy,’ the musical line was never compromised for sentimental effect.

When Foley Davis sang ‘I am a poor widow,’ it was not as an artist singing about a character: in that moment, she was the poor widow of whom she sang, the mother’s fear for her son’s well-being suffusing the singer’s tone with maternal warmth. The expressivity with which she sang ‘Yes, I know a child the color of earth’ and ‘The child I know on his palm holds my heart’ revealed that, in nobility of spirit, this unfortunate young mother was a worthy peer of her visitors. Foley Davis’s subtle exclamation of ‘All that gold!’ affirmed that the mother’s theft of Melchior’s gold was only a momentary surrender to temptation. She voiced ‘For such a king I’ve waited all my life’ with affecting humility. The image of the mother silently watching the start of her son’s trek with the magi, delicately acted by Foley Davis, was incredibly moving. Enlivening performances with insightful portrayals of dynamic characters is one of the most commendable achievements of Foley Davis’s artistry, but her exquisite depiction of Amahl’s mother in this staging of Amahl and the Night Visitors was in a class of its own.

Menotti was adamant that, whether on television or on stage, Amahl must always be sung by a boy singer, a mandate that continues to give conductors and directors nightmares. Adages concerning the perils of working with children notwithstanding, casting an age-appropriate boy as Amahl is problematic. A high caliber of musical precocity can negatively impact an Amahl’s realization of the innocence and naïveté that pervade the rôle, but Amahl’s music is undeniably difficult. Greensboro Opera’s production effectuated a consistent balance between musicality and dramatic credibility by casting thirteen-year-old Phillip Webb as Amahl. Typical of a young man on the cusp of adolescence, Webb’s pure-toned voice was strongest and surest of intonation in its lower octave, but his highest notes were generally on pitch and unfailingly attractive. Traversing the stage with his crutch, pantomiming fervent bugle playing, nettling his mother, and later defending her from the page’s true but harsh accusation, Webb’s Amahl was charismatic, his performance reflecting the singer’s experience in Greensboro Opera’s Pagliacci. Still, the awkwardness of the character’s disability was not neglected. Webb valiantly held his own in a cast of consummate professionals, proving to be a captivating Amahl who earned his visitors’ esteem.

It has often been asked in the first decades of the Twenty-First Century whether, in a time of eroding cultural awareness and waning attention spans, opera remains relevant. It is far easier merely to state than to persuasively demonstrate that, yes, opera remains viable and valuable, both as a distraction from society’s fears and as a forum in which those fears can be productively analyzed and allayed. Composed in an era during which the world was plagued by the suspicions of the Cold War, Amahl and the Night Visitors embodies the ethos of hope that opera at its best can wield. There is no better answer to questions about the necessity of opera in the Twenty-First Century than this promise of hope, and Greensboro Opera’s production of Amahl and the Night Visitors was unquestionably opera at its best.

02 December 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Domenico Freschi — ERMELINDA (N. Printz, S. Couden, K. Scharich, J. Montigne, D. Rosengaus; Ars Minerva, 22 November 2019)

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano NIKOLA PRINTZ as Ermelinda (left) and soprano KINDRA SCHARICH as Rosaura (right) in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]DOMENICO FRESCHI (1634 – 1710): ErmelindaNikola Printz (Ermelinda), Sara Couden (Ormondo), Kindra Scharich (Rosaura), Justin Montigne (Aristeo), Deborah Rosengaus (Armidoro); Cynthia Black (violin I), Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo (violin II), Aaron Westman (viola), Gretchen Claassen (cello), Adam Cockerham (theorbo); Jory Vinikour, harpsichord and conducor [Céline Ricci, Stage Director; Entropy, Projections Designer; Matthew Nash, Costume Designer; Thomas Bowersox, Lighting Designer; Teaghan Rohan, Makeup; Nicole Spencer Carreira, Graphic Designer; Ars Minerva, ODC Theater, San Francisco, California, USA; Friday, 22 November 2019]

When a conclave of music-loving intellectuals and Classical scholars first devised the premise of opera as Twenty-First-Century audiences know it, their principal objective was to recreate the fusion of drama, music, and dance that was the foundation of Ancient Greek theater. Discarding ego with the aim of focusing on communicating emotions via stylized speech and movement that transcended the polyphonic complexities of Renaissance music, opera’s earliest composers were charged with allying emotions with melodic and harmonic interplay that illuminated their hidden facets. Rooted in the fertile traditions of Antiquity, it is not surprising that opera found source material in mythology. Rejuvenated in pioneering scores by opera’s early masters, figures like Daphne, Diana, and Orpheus leapt from the pages of Ovid and his contemporaries onto the stages of Italy, not least in Venice, where public theaters enabled composers like Claudio Monteverdi and Pier Francesco Cavalli to extend opera’s reach from aristocratic salons to La Serenissima’s canals, streets, and piazze—and, by the middle of the Seventeenth Century, throughout much of Europe.

In its native land, opera was rapidly established as an integral component of indigenous culture, its melodies embodying the Italian spirit in times of celebration and crisis. For Venetians, opera became by the time of Monteverdi’s death in 1643 a vital element of their city’s Carnevale, the boisterous period of indulging hedonistic impulses that preceded the austerity of Lent. The flamboyant masks of Carnevale, affirmed by history to have been as intriguing in the Seventeenth Century as they remain in 2019, disclose a communal theatricality that complements opera’s dramatic aesthetics. Dedicated to rediscovering neglected scores composed as entertainments for the Carnevale season, San Francisco-based Ars Minerva transports the marvels and mysteries of La Dominante to California’s Bay Area. Furthering the success of previous productions of Daniele da Castolari’s La Cleopatra, Carlo Pallavicino’s Le amazzoni nell’isole fortunate, Pietro Andrea Ziani’s La Circe, and Giovanni Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide with the first known staging since the Seventeenth Century of Giovanni Domenico Freschi’s drama per musica Ermelinda, Ars Minerva recreated in San Francisco’s Mission District a fascinating, unjustly-forgotten chapter in opera’s and Venice’s vibrant histories.

Born in Vicenza in the Veneto on 26 March 1634, Freschi emerges from the pages of Ermelinda as a conservative but innovative artist. As in Brahms’s works, careful but creative adaptation of the styles and structures inherited from his forebears yields music that cleverly and compellingly transcends its conventionality. Premièred in 1680 in the Teatro delle Vergini in the Piazzola sul Brenta compound of the Contarini family, where Freschi’s opera Berenice vendicativa also received its first staging, Ermelinda inhabits the musical and dramatic realm populated by Cavalli’s La Calisto and Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona and Antonio Cesti’s Orontea and Il pomo d’oro, operas that predate Ermelinda by a quarter-century. [Some sources suggest that Ermelinda was first performed in 1682, but existing evidence makes a more convincing case for 1680.]

The composer having achieved biological and vocational longevity that was unusual for the time in which he lived, it is reasonable to hypothesize that much of Freschi’s music has been lost, undermining musicological assessment of the trajectory of his artistic development, but, its relative adherence to long-established traditions notwithstanding, passages in the score of Ermelinda prefigure later works, especially the operas of Agostino Steffani. There are also moments in Ermelinda that look forward to works from opposite ends of Georg Friedrich Händel’s career, the early Agrippina and the late Serse. Staged in the intimate space of ODC Theater, Ars Minerva’s Ermelinda irrefutably justified the company’s decision to resurrect the piece. Tastes change rapidly and inexplicably, but how can music of this quality have been forgotten?

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) countertenor JUSTIN MONTIGNE as Aristeo, mezzo-soprano KINDRA SCHARICH as Rosaura, and contralto SARA COUDEN as Ormindo in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]La follia dell’amore: (from left to right) countertenor Justin Montigne as Aristeo, mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich as Rosaura, and contralto Sara Couden as Ormindo in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

Logically, singers should be the most effective directors of opera productions. It is said, probably rightly, that doctors are the worst patients, however, and the applicability of this adage to singers directing opera has been demonstrated by the unsuccessful efforts of acclaimed singers. An uncommon singer whose extraordinary voice is partnered by artistry of equal caliber, Ars Minerva’s founder and Artistic Director Céline Ricci presented Ermelinda not as a ridiculous romp in antiquated sexual politics but as a grippingly modern examination of gender identities, individual ethics, and conflicts between duty and desire. In insensitive productions, operas of Ermelinda’s vintage can seem interminable, but Ricci’s concept, aided by the decision to present Freschi’s three acts in two parts with an interval following the fourth scene of the composer’s Act Two, limned the work’s convoluted narrative with cinematic efficiency and clarity. Meticulously maintaining an equilibrium between comedy and seriousness in all aspects of the production generated a performance in which humor heightened the emotional significance of the opera’s humanistic ethos. Building to a wrenchingly moving dénouement, Ricci’s pacing of the drama exhibited pervasive intelligence, her passion for giving new life to Freschi’s music apparent in every gesture, movement, and expression.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Ricci’s leadership was the consistency of the dedication and ingenuity exhibited by the artists engaged to bring her vision to fruition. Matthew Nash’s costume designs are rightly revered in and beyond San Francisco, and his work for Ars Minerva’s production of Ermelinda was whimsical, intricate, and splendidly provocative. The swirling patterns of male characters’ waistcoats paid homage to the brilliant brocades of authentic Venetian dress of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, and the stylized hoops within which Ermelinda was bound artfully evoked both servitude and forced femininity. The rosettes with which Rosaura’s gown was festooned were astoundingly beautiful and appropriately indicative of the lady’s flirtatious, frivolous constitution. Inventively dressed by Nash and refined by Teaghan Rohan’s makeup mastery, the characters’ physical appearances embodied their functions within the drama.

Similarly, Entropy’s projection designs reflected the opera’s constantly-changing moods. Often gorgeous but never distracting, the projections forged alluring tableaux that lent spatial specificity to Ermelinda’s fanciful geographical setting. Tastefully illuminated by Thomas Bowersox’s lighting, the scenic incarnation of the agricultural prison to which the defiant Ermelinda was exiled was reminiscent of California’s verdant central valley, and the facility of transitions among times of day augmented the pliant continuity of Ricci’s direction. An indispensable participant in the production whose witty antics emerged from her surroundings, Elisabeth Flaherty added a delightful human dimension to the staging, the ebullience with which she alternated alliances—and genders—in the performance of her duties providing welcome levity in moments of calamity. Born of unmistakable regard for music and text, Ars Minerva’s production unearthed in Ermelinda a pertinent modernity that the centuries-old score wore with the ideal fit of one of Nash’s costumes.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano DEBORAH ROSENGAUS as Armidoro in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © Ars Minerva]L’amante usurpante: mezzo-soprano Deborah Rosengaus as Armidoro in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

The virtuosity displayed by the musicians assembled by Ars Minerva was no less awe-inspiring for being expected in a performance of this sort of music. Individually and in ensemble, violinists Cynthia Black and Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo and violist Aaron Westman played with intonational accuracy and rhythmic effervescence. Cellist Gretchen Claassen and theorbist Adam Cockerham propelled the continuo indefatigably, modulations from major to minor and transitions among scenes managed with dramatic cohesion. Like Ricci’s direction, the musical guidance of conductor and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour divulged obvious cognizance of and respect for singers and singing, as well as an innate affinity for Freschi’s style. Ritornelli did not merely preface individual numbers or accompany characters’ entrances and exits: under Vinikour’s supervision, these interludes intensified the emotions of the scenes they punctuated.

There are few places in the United States in which the joke of inserting a few bars of Cleopatra’s ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’ and Almirena’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Händel’s Giulio Cesare and Rinaldo into the scene in which music is proposed as an effective treatment for amorous maladies could be expected to be appreciated, but the hilarity of this anachronism was not wasted on Ars Minerva’s audience. [So eloquent was the musicians’ playing of these fragments that Freschi would surely have forgiven Rosaura for succumbing to the temptation to sing the arias.] Vinikour collaborated with his orchestral colleagues with the camaraderie of a chamber musician, but his stewardship of the drama was the handiwork of a talented conductor not merely of specialized repertoire but of any music that he chooses to study. That this performance of Ermelinda was fastidiously prepared was palpable, but the energy and exuberance of the music making engendered an atmosphere of edge-of-the-seat spontaneity.

Hearing many recent performances of a variety of repertoire, the novice listener might understandably deduce that operatic duplicity is mandated to be depicted with unpleasant sounds. Endeavoring to seize power and love to which he is entitled by neither birth nor conquest, Armidoro in Ermelinda is indubitably a man of moral and ethical ambiguity, but mezzo-soprano Deborah Rosengaus’s performance substantiated that the most effective operatic antagonists are those who sing appealingly. Dispatching Gs at the top of the stave with inviolable poise, she sang ‘Amo e peno e pur sò che fortuna non ho’ confidently, effortlessly projecting her tones into the theater. The bravado with which she voiced ‘Ride il fior, e ride il prato’ was captivating, her excellent diction emphasizing the skill with which Freschi employed musical effects to spotlight textual nuances.

Rosengaus navigated the dramatic course traversed by Armidoro’s ‘Hor ch’il mal fatt’e palese al rimedio,’ ‘Oggi di sol giova fingere,’ and ‘S’havessi creduto Amor si crudel’ with theatrical savvy, her depictions of the character’s disillusionment, anger, and wounded pride animated by incisive vocalism. Rosengaus suffused her singing of ‘Belle e brutte, son così le donne tutte’ and ‘Voi piangete, e fatte piangere’ with bitterness rooted in the  scorned man’s vulnerability. Whether plotting with Aristeo, sparring with Ormondo, or lamenting his unrequited love for Ermelinda, Rosengaus’s Armidoro sang beguilingly.

IN REVIEW: countertenor JUSTIN MONTIGNE as Aristeo (left) and mezzo-soprano KINDRA SCHARICH as Rosaura (right) in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]Gli schemi in azione: countertenor Justin Montigne as Aristeo (left) and mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich as Rosaura (right) in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

The rôle of Ermelinda’s closed-minded, self-serving father Aristeo was sung with uninhibited immersion in the character’s conniving, commendable technical acumen, and an uproarious nervous tic by countertenor Justin Montigne. In his account of ‘L’huom dotato al mondo fù di ragion e libertà,’ he set a high standard with his capable voicing of dizzying fiorature—a standard that he reliably met in subsequent scenes. The countertenor’s tone occasionally lacked ideal support at the lower extremity of the range, as in ‘D’una febre ch’e amorosa Arder sà la gioventù,’ but he largely avoided pushing the voice. The ironic sentiments of ‘Povera humanità,’ ‘Non sperar ch’io t’ami più,’ and ‘Vanno al pari honor, e vita’ received from him wonderfully uninhibited readings. At one point gleefully donning gloves of the type that a veterinarian might wear whilst delivering a breeched calf, Montigne exulted in the zany quirks of his rôle without compromising musical integrity. Aristeo is an unapologetic hypocrite and a reprehensible father, but Montigne’s strongly-sung performance exerted an eerie charisma.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano KINDRA SCHARICH as Rosaura in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]La bellezza della vendetta: mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich as Rosaura in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

Capriciousness of the operatic variety can be diverting but is seldom as endearing as it was in mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich’s portrayal of Ermelinda’s inconstant companion and confidante Rosaura. An inveterate manipulator, this Rosaura enjoyed no pastime more than amorous intrigue. From the first notes of ‘Maledico Amor e sorte,’ Scharich fashioned a characterization of irresistible charm, deploying Rosaura’s femininity as a dazzling, disorienting weapon. Nonetheless, a tender heart could be discerned in her singing of ‘Non giova piangere,’ and her performances of ‘Altro non è l’Amor, ch’un pazzia’ and ‘Benedico Amore e sorte’ bewitchingly conveyed the amazement of a young woman who was as confused by her own feelings as by others’ actions.

Absolute domination of a lavender wig is not a guarantee of success as an opera singer, but Scharich’s integration of her wig as an extension of Rosaura’s persona was an art unto itself. Still, it was her vocalism that garnered admiration, particularly in the demanding ‘Non sperar t’ami più.’ Declaiming ‘Frà il timor e la speme confusa ancor rimango’ with emotional candor, she sang ‘Il timore col cieco Amore fan ch’io speri e sì e nò’ mesmerizingly, her sensual timbre flickering with indecision. Scharich found surprising expressive depths in ‘Mi dice il mio core che giova sperar’ and ‘Non mi perdo di speranza,’ voicing these numbers glamourously. Declaring war on the wiles of men with adroitly-executed flamenco steps, Scharich’s Rosaura bandaged her battle wounds with fresh stratagems. For this Rosaura, the thrill was perhaps in the chase rather than in the catch, but Scharich’s singing ensnared the audience’s affection.

IN REVIEW: contralto SARA COUDEN as Ormindo in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]Il vero principe: contralto Sara Couden as Ormindo in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

Rarer amongst today’s singers than a capable Brünnhilde and a fully-qualified Siegfried is a true contralto. Rarer still are productions in which contraltos are not compelled to portray mothers, witches, harlots, or crones. Ars Minerva had in Sara Couden a genuine contralto with a voice of superb quality, and she had in the rôle of the Phoenician prince Ormondo, disguised as the simple but sincere Clorindo in order to be near to his beloved Ermelinda, a part in which her artistry shone. Hurling herself into the drama, Couden voiced ‘Bella madre di pensieri’ and ‘Con grazie si cortesi’ powerfully, the resonance of her lower register evincing Ormondo’s nobility. Musically and emotionally, the contralto’s singing of ‘Pupillette s’io vi miro, mi sforzate ad adorar’ was arresting, her performance achieving a depth of feeling that transformed the opera’s plot from harmless farce to romance on the brink of tragedy. The comedic implications of the contrast with her singing of ‘T’adoro sì, ma nò, pensier cangiando io vò’ therefore could not have been more significant: in an environment in which honesty was folly, feigned madness was a convenient refuge for this cunning prince.

Couden’s technical prowess furnished a myriad of memorable passages, one of the most exhilarating of which was ‘Non bastava, o Ciel, così tormi al cor la libertà,’ but a potent feature of her interpretation of Ormondo’s music was her uncanny ability to reveal the psychological motivations of coloratura. With her shrewd acting, she differentiated the temperamental contours of ‘Fà quanto sai, Fortuna, nò, non lascierò d’amar’ and ‘Bella, la libertà che doni a questo piè,’ but it was again her voice that stunned in ‘Stelle, contro di me tanto rigor perche si fieri,’ her sumptuous tone enveloping the music in a cloak of vocal velvet. The sincerity of Couden’s statement of ‘Per tè vivo, e a me son morto’ was heartbreaking, and her poignant enunciation of ‘Che mai si può far’ was profoundly touching, Ormondo’s despair expressed with riveting simplicity. Significantly, it is not by Ermelinda but by Ormondo that the opera’s final aria is sung, and Couden voiced ‘Gioje care, volatemi in petto’ mirthfully, rejoicing in the triumph of the prince’s fidelity. Couden’s was an unforgettable performance in which the singer’s formidable gifts were wholly devoted to serving the composer.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano NIKOLA PRINTZ as Ermelinda in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]La figlia ribelle: mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz as Ermelinda in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

The title rôle in Ermelinda is an ancestor of Händel’s Rodelinda, Beethoven’s Leonore, and Puccini’s Minnie, a woman unafraid of living, loving, and dying on her own terms. In mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz’s portrayal for Ars Minerva, Freschi’s heroine endured misfortune and abuse but was no wilting victim. Voicing ‘Mi vuoi viva’ ‘Le dirò che non ha core chi resiste a tua beltà’ commandingly, Printz validated Ermelinda’s place at the center of the drama, the other characters’ paths intersecting in their interactions with her. The polished-mahogany timbre of Printz’s voice gleamed in their singing of ‘L’Amar corrisposto, e un caro morire,’ and the expressivity with which they phrased ‘Nò, stelle rubelle, sperar più non vò’ and ‘Deh, stringetevi al mio piè, cari lacci’ accentuated the subtleties of Freschi’s word settings.

The anguish that emanated from Printz’s accounts of ‘Dolce Amor, pur ti stringo a questo sen’ and ‘Colli aperti, erme foreste vengo a voi per lagrimar’ bared Ermelinda’s dauntless but sensitive soul to the audience, securing empathy for the maltreated woman’s plight. The mezzo-soprano uttered ‘Ch’io adori quell volto possibil non è, nò’ with grim resolve, and, imparting Ermelinda’s anticipation of a blissful reunion with Ormondo in death, they sang ‘Nelle Elisio ove t’aggiri teco accogli i miei sospiri’ ethereally, the voice echoing the meaning of the words. Their ardent, assured vocalism coupled with unpretentious acting, Printz portrayed Ermelinda as a woman governed by no will but her own.

At the time of its first performance in 1680, Ermelinda was already archaic, and it is unlikely that, then or in the subsequent three decades before his death in 1710, Freschi imagined that his opera would return to the stage after an absence of 339 years. Virtually every piece that has been reawakened in recent years has advocates who extravagantly extol its virtues, but Ars Minerva’s production proved that Ermelinda’s long slumber was unwarranted. With this spectacular, stylish staging, Ars Minerva righted one of operatic history’s egregious wrongs.

22 November 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — MANON LESCAUT (L. Haroutounian, B. Jagde, A. C. Evans, P. Skinner, C. Oglesby, A. Dixon, Z. Bai, S. Baek, C. Pursell, A. E. Moser, J. Thomas, L. Cameron Porter, S. Mouzon; San Francisco Opera, 20 November 2019)

IN REVIEW: the cast of San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Manon LescautLianna Haroutounian (Manon Lescaut), Brian Jagde (Chevalier Renato des Grieux), Anthony Clark Evans (Lescaut), Philip Skinner (Geronte), Christopher Oglesby (Edmondo), Ashley Dixon (Un musico), Zhengyi Bai (Il maestro di ballo, Un lampionaio), SeokJong Baek (Un oste, Il comandante di marina), Christian Pursell (Un sergente degli arceri), Angela Eden Moser (Madrigal singer), Jesslyn Thomas (madrigalista), Laurel Cameron Porter (Un madrigalista), Sally Mouzon (Un madrigalista); San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Nicola Luisotti, conductor [Olivier Tambosi (Director), Frank Philipp Schlößmann (Production Designer), Duane Schuler (Lighting Designer), Dave Maier (Fight Director), Lawrence Pech (Choreographer), Ian Robertson (Chorus Director); San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, USA; Wednesday, 20 November 2019]

When the opera that solidified his reputation as the best-qualified successor to Giuseppe Verdi, his setting of Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, was premièred at Torino’s Teatro Regio on 1 February 1893, Giacomo Puccini was thirty-four years old; hardly a child prodigy but still a young man by Twenty-First-Century standards. The son of a musical family, Puccini honed his craft via works in a variety of genres, but the early scores Le Willis and Edgar affirmed that the composer’s natural habitat was the opera house. Possessing an exceptional aptitude for theatricality that has prompted some observers to dismiss his operas as overly sentimental, Puccini wielded his talent for creating beguiling melodies—intermittently overused, admittedly—that characterized the music of Bellini and Verdi. Though his work exhibits many of the verismo aesthetics championed by his contemporaries, Puccini was an unabashed Romantic at heart. Manon Lescaut is a score in which the Twentieth Century is near on the musical horizon, but its defining qualities are neither radical nor pedantic. The essence of Manon Lescaut is a young composer’s passionately tuneful paean to a literary heroine who garnered his love.

The complicated gestation of Manon Lescaut suggests that, in this instance of Puccini’s pervasive affection for his opera’s heroine, Shakespeare’s well-known anecdote proved to be frustratingly apt: the course of true love indeed was not smooth. Though eager to capitalize on the enthusiasm that greeted Puccini’s first efforts in operatic form, the publisher Giulio Ricordi was openly hostile to the notion an operatic setting of Prévost’s L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. Already familiar to European audiences when Puccini was falling victim to Manon’s charms were Daniel François Esprit Auber’s 1856 opéra comique Manon Lescaut, its libretto written by the influential Eugène Scribe, and Jules Massenet’s 1884 treatment of the story, not as widely known or beloved in 1893 as it is today. Nevertheless, Puccini refused to be dissuaded. The hands of Marco Praga and Domenico Oliva were the first to touch the libretto of Manon Lescaut, which ultimately became a muddle to which Puccini’s frequent collaborators Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, the composer Ruggero Leoncavallo, Giulio Ricordi, and Puccini himself contributed. Finally, Giuseppe Adami made minor alterations at Puccini’s request, engendering the edition of the work that is now familiar to Twenty-First-Century audiences. To Puccini’s credit, the sutures in the text are not apparent in the music: in a well-rehearsed, intelligently-staged production like the one mounted by San Francisco Opera, Manon Lescaut displays a captivating wealth of musical invention and homogeneity.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) bass-baritone CHRISTIAN PURSELL as Il sergente degli arceri, tenor BRIAN JAGDE as Chevalier des Grieux, and soprano LIANNA HAROUTOUNIAN as Manon Lescaut in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Una battaglia per amore: (from left to right) bass-baritone Christian Pursell as Il sergente degli arceri, tenor Brian Jagde as Chevalier des Grieux, and soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Manon Lescaut in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

Introduced to the company on 28 September 1926, with the legendary Claudia Muzio in the title rôle, Manon Lescaut has amassed a performance history at San Francisco Opera that reflects the opera’s and its composer’s popularities. In 1927, the inaugural production was reprised, with Frances Peralta (née Phyllis Partington and therefore of no relation to the celebrated Mexican soprano Ángela Peralta) portraying the eponymous heroine and Giovanni Martinelli as des Grieux. Two performances in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles in October 1949 united Licia Albanese and Jussi Björling, the latter of whom later returned to San Francisco to sing des Grieux opposite the Manon of Dorothy Kirsten. Mario del Monaco sang des Grieux in San Francisco in 1950. The Manon of Pilar Lorengar graced War Memorial Opera House’s stage, and two of the most memorable Manons of recent decades sang their débuts in the rôle in San Francisco, Leontyne Price in 1974 and Mirella Freni in 1983. When the present staging, a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago, débuted in 2006, it was with Karita Mattila as Manon. Especially in the United States, San Francisco Opera’s advocacy of Manon Lescaut has advanced the opera’s fortunes as markedly as the score legitimized Puccini’s global standing as Verdi’s successor as Italy’s most successful composer of opera. That advocacy has also created exalted standards to which the current and future productions of Manon Lescaut will inevitably be compared.

Director Olivier Tambosi’s staging of Manon Lescaut is largely traditional but is not one in which adherence to tradition is substituted for interpretive insight. Rather than conjuring the kinds of vague, fairy-tale evocations of Eighteenth-Century France that please the eyes but leave the emotions unmoved, this production strives for temporal and locational specificity. Allied with Frank Philipp Schlößmann’s elegantly-proportioned set designs, the colorful but period-appropriate costumes, and Duane Schuler’s expertly-realized lighting, Tambosi’s direction largely concentrated the viewer’s attention according to the dictates of Puccini’s music, delivering the opulent visuals expected of a production by a company of San Francisco Opera’s renown but avoiding dwarfing the intimacies of the drama.

Aside from an overabundance of climbing on furniture that particularly victimized Edmondo, a noteworthy accomplishment of this production was the relative absence of conventional operatic mannerisms and affectation: owing to Tambosi’s vision, supported by Lawrence Pech’s choreography and Dave Maier’s fight direction, the performers on stage moved as people move rather than behaving like creatures that exist only in opera. There were critical moments, not least during Manon’s death scene in Act Four, in which characters were not where they logically ought to have been, however, and the emotional connection between stage and audience was diminished. Still, too many of today’s opera productions demonstrate various degrees of ignorance of the basic goals of staging opera, foremost among which is the fabrication of an environment in which singers can plausibly portray characters whilst singing music that demands constant immersion in the rhythms and the words. This Manon Lescaut was perceptibly guided by cognizance of the score and respect for the artists performing it.

IN REVIEW: tenor CHRISTOPHER OGLESBY as Edmondo (center) in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Un principe tra gli studenti: tenor Christopher Oglesby as Edmondo (center) in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

In the current revival, supervision of San Francisco Opera’s musical forces was entrusted to the company’s former Music Director, Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti. Luisotti’s tenure as Music Director was not without difficulties, but his leadership of this performance exerted many felicities that distinguish the conductor’s work. Particularly commendable was the reliable coordination between stage and pit during large ensembles. Not least in the public scenes of Acts One and Three, the singing of the San Francisco Opera Chorus was thrilling, Ian Robertson’s much-admired training begetting uncommon accuracy without impeding dramatic involvement. Likewise, the marvelous playing of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra musicians disclosed thorough preparation and acquaintance with the score. Assured of the capabilities of the musical personnel at his disposal, Luisotti focused on exploring nuances of Puccini’s scoring, drawing lithe, flexible playing from the strings.

The conductor’s handling of the Intermezzo was stirring, the wall of sound constructed by the orchestra never permitted to overwhelm Puccini’s carefully-wrought interplay of thematic threads, but, both in large ensembles and, to a lesser extent, in smaller-scaled passages, the orchestra often overwhelmed the singers. [Patrons seated in other locations reported that this was less obtrusive elsewhere in the house.] There were moments in which Luisotti’s tempi seemed at odds with the singers’ inclinations, but there was compensatory adaptability, his pacing free from the dictatorial insensitivity that can spoil a performance. Luisotti provided propulsion and poetry as needed. A conductor’s objective in opera should be to mold performances in which the music seems to emerge from the drama. This was often true of this Manon Lescaut, in which Luisotti’s comprehension of Puccini’s style was manifested in an idiomatic, emotive performance.

Long one of America’s most nurturing training centers for emerging artists, San Francisco Opera cultivates an environment in which young singers refine their techniques by performing alongside established artists. This performance of Manon Lescaut was enriched by the participation of some of the company’s gifted young artists, several of whom are current Adler Fellows. The madrigal singers in Act Two—sopranos Angela Eden Moser and Jesslyn Thomas and mezzo-sopranos Laurel Cameron Porter and Sally Mouzon—delivered their parts mellifluously, complementing the lovely voice of mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, who began the madrigale with an appealing account of ‘Sulla vetta tu del monte erri, o Clori.’ Bass-baritone Christian Pursell was an engaging presence, vocally and dramatically, as the Sergente degli arceri in Act Three, voicing ‘Il passo m’aprite’ forcefully. Similarly, baritone SeokJong Baek was engaging as both the Oste in Act One and the Comandante in Act Three, declaiming the latter’s ‘È pronta la nave’ with requisite authority. Tenor Zhengyi Bai deployed a bright timbre and sure-footed dramatic instincts, first in his singing of the Maestro di ballo’s ‘Vi prego, signorina’ in Act Two and later in the Lampionaio’s atmospheric ‘...e Kate rispose al Re’ in Act Three.

IN REVIEW: soprano LIANNA HAROUTOUNIAN as Manon Lescaut (center left) and tenor ZHENGYI BAI as Il maestro di ballo (center right) in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]La signora balla: soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Manon Lescaut (center left) and tenor Zhengyi Bai as Il maestro di ballo (center right) in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

Portraying the rabble-rousing student Edmondo, tenor Christopher Oglesby sang characterfully without making his depiction a caricature. As embarrassingly puerile performances of the part affirm, this distinction is not achieved without consummate artistry. Oglesby’s ribald but tasteful depiction left the impression that the tavern in Amiens visited in Act One is a far livelier place when Edmondo is imbibing its offerings. The tenor’s singing of ‘Ave, sera gentile’ rose to an easy top A, and the adventurousness with which he sang ‘La tua ventura ci rassicura’ made the projected translation of the words redundant. In Oglesby’s portrayal, Edmondo’s mocking of the out-witted Geronte, ‘Vecchietto amabile, incipriato Pluton, sei tu,’ was unquestionably mischievous but not genuinely mean-spirited. Youthful joie de vivre emanated from his voicing of ‘Il colpo è fatto.’ Stating that a singer’s performance exhibited great promise is now so clichéd as to be inconsequential, but Oglesby’s secure, charismatic singing of Edmondo’s music—music that, like Puccini’s later writing for Goro in Madama Butterfly, Nick in La fanciulla del West, and Prunier in La rondine, merits voices finer than those to which it is typically assigned—identified him as a singer whose endeavors are likely to brighten opera’s future.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone PHILIP SKINNER as Geronte in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Il finanziere dei sogni: bass-baritone Philip Skinner as Geronte in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

Bass-baritone Philip Skinner was the sort of Geronte di Ravoir for which Puccini surely hoped, his acting bringing the doting—not confused with dotage, as is often the case—roué to life with complete credibility but without his vocalism being marred by the aural scars of long experience. Plotting Geronte’s abscondment with Manon in Act One, Skinner sang ‘Questa notte, amico, qui poserò’ with the nonchalance of a man who was certain of the brilliance of his scheme. The implicit irony that oozed from the bass-baritone’s articulation of ‘Dunque vostra sorella il velo cingerà?’ succinctly disclosed the codger’s lecherous intentions, and he voiced ‘Di sedur la sorellina è il momento’ with seriousness that heightened the ridiculousness of Geronte’s pursuit of Manon.

In the scene with the pampered Manon in Act Two, Skinner’s performance emphasized the kinship between this episode in Puccini’s opera and the lesson scene in Act Two of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. Later returning to his paramour’s boudoir to discover Manon reunited with des Grieux, the ferocity of his voicing of ‘Affè, madamigella, or comprendo il perchè di nostr’attesa!’ was exhilarating. The impact of the climax of Act Two can be blunted if Geronte cannot summon vocal muscle with which to threaten Manon and des Grieux. In this performance, Skinner flexed that muscle menacingly, his firm, flinty singing lending Geronte a depth beyond that of the usual aging libertine. His Geronte turning the tables on Manon by compelling her to observe her desperate state in the mirror with which she haughtily ridiculed him, Skinner brought the curtain down on Act Two with an astounding coup de théâtre.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone PHILIP SKINNER as Geronte (left) and baritone ANTHONY CLARK EVANS as Lescaut (right) in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Signori con piani: bass-baritone Philip Skinner as Geronte (left) and baritone Anthony Clark Evans as Lescaut (right) in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

Manon’s brother and guardian Lescaut received from baritone Anthony Clark Evans a depiction in which limning the character’s ambiguous motivations was secondary to imparting obvious fraternal affection and, above all, singing the part with élan. In Act One, the baritone was a source of dramatic momentum, his utterances taking a vital part in the events that put the opera on the path to its tragic conclusion. Evans sang ‘Malo consiglio della gente mia’ engrossingly but without exaggeration, his phrasing faithful to the cadences of Puccini’s word setting. Holding court with his sister, chez Geronte, in Act Two, Evans’s Lescaut partnered his Manon handsomely, voicing ‘Sei splendida e lucente!’ with fervor that peaked on his well-projected top Fs. A steely core emerged in the singer’s voice during the final moments of Act Two, Lescaut’s instinct to protect Manon—and his own interests—tested by Geronte’s actions.

His character accompanying des Grieux on the quest to rescue Manon from deportation at the beginning of Act Three, Evans’s vigorous vocalism plaintively expressed the gravitas of the situation. His singing of ‘Perduta è la partita!’ touchingly communicated Lescaut’s sense of helplessness and despair. Lescaut is one of opera’s most complicated and, in many performances of Manon Lescaut, unlikable characters, but Evans’s portrayal, though heeding all of Puccini’s and his librettists’ instructions, made Manon’s paradoxical sibling atypically endearing.

IN REVIEW: tenors BRIAN JAGDE as Chevalier des Grieux (center left) and CHRISTOPHER OGLESBY as Edmondo (center right) in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Un inno all’amore: tenors Brian Jagde as Chevalier des Grieux (center left) and Christopher Oglesby as Edmondo (center right) in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

Richard Tucker cited Puccini’s Renato des Grieux as his favorite rôle. Hearing recordings of his performances of the part opposite Dorothy Kirsten, Renata Tebaldi, Licia Albanese, and Raina Kabaivabska at the Metropolitan Opera, Montserrat Caballé in Buenos Aires, Virginia Zeani in Rome, and the inimitable Magda Olivero in Caracas, it is easy to discern why the rôle appealed to Tucker. Perhaps des Grieux is not tenor Brian Jagde’s favorite rôle, but his inaugural interpretation of the part revealed a superlative affinity for the music. Upon his first entrance in Act One, Jagde suffused his des Grieux with youthful disenfranchisement that enhanced the believability of the character’s impulsiveness. The tenor sang ‘Tra voi, belle, brune e bionde’ with suitable ennui, fostering a significant contrast with his awestruck enunciations of ‘Dio, quanto è bella!’ and ‘Cortese damigella, il priego mio accettate’ after Manon’s arrival. ‘Donna non vidi mai simile a questa!’ is one of Puccini’s finest arias for the tenor voice and, melodically, can be argued to be more gratifying than several of its companions in the Puccini canon. Jagde sang the piece ardently, untroubled by the top B♭s. Enchanted by his Manon, this des Grieux voiced ‘Oh, come gravi le vostre parole!’ rapturously.

Finding Manon ensconced in the splendor of Geronte’s Parisian residence, des Grieux’s wounded pride and anger electrified Jagde’s voicing of ‘Sì, sciagurata, la mia vendetta.’ It was necessary for him and all of his colleagues to boost their volume in order to be heard over the orchestra, and rarely deviating from forte sometimes deprived Jagde’s vocalism of finesse. Still, the intensity of his singing of ‘Senti, di qui partiamo’ and ‘Con te portar dei solo il cor’ was exciting, the latter taking him to a magnificent top B. Des Grieux’s music undergoes a further metamorphosis in Act Three, and Jagde responded with a lyrical reading of ‘Manon, disperato è il mio prego!’ that, as in his transition from sangfroid to romantic zeal in Act One, facilitated a meaningful distinction between the sadness of the act’s first scene and the avidity of the subsequent scenes. Jagde’s galvanizing voicing of ‘No! no! pazzo son io!’ recalled Franco Bonisolli’s singing of this music, his traversal of the largo sostenuto ‘Guardate, pazzo son’ throbbing with emotion and cresting on another ringing top B.

Vocally, Jagde was on near-best form throughout the evening: dramatically, he was most effective in Act Four. The voice remained strong, but the tenor’s demeanor as he sang ‘Tutta su me ti posa’ exuded exhaustion and faltering determination. Jagde approached ‘Vedi, vedi, son lo che piango’ and ‘Tutto il mio sangue per la tua vita!’ without artifice, and the emotional directness of his singing of ‘Nulla rinvenni l’orizzonte nulla mi rivelò’ was touching. As Jagde’s experience in the rôle grows, he is likely to discover more subtleties in the music and his interpretation of it, but he was in this performance a forthright, clarion-toned des Grieux.

IN REVIEW: soprano LIANNA HAROUTOUNIAN as Manon Lescaut in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Sola, perduta, abbandonata: soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Manon Lescaut in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

The title rôle in the present revival of Manon Lescaut is the third Puccini heroine that Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian has sung with San Francisco Opera. Like her des Grieux, Lescaut, Geronte, and Edmondo, Haroutounian made her rôle début in the first performance of this run, adding the part to her repertoire before an audience that has proved to be appreciative of her artistry. For a ruminative singer, taking on a new rôle in a house in which the part was sung by sopranos of the caliber of Claudia Muzio, Dorothy Kirsten, and Leontyne Price is surely intimidating and humbling, but Haroutounian coped admirably with Manon’s musical and dramatic demands and with the inescapable legacy of San Francisco Opera’s progression of illustrious exponents of the rôle.

Introducing Manon to des Grieux and the audience, Haroutounian sang ‘Manon Lescaut mi chiamo’ beautifully, but the irresistible magic that this passage can have was missing. She gracefully eschewed cloying silliness in ‘Il mio fato si chiama’ and ‘Vedete? Io son fedele alla parola mia,’ preferring a straightforward depiction of Manon as an ambitious young woman rather than a coquettish ingenue. The altered trajectory of Manon’s fate in Act Two was immediately palpable in the soprano’s voicing of ‘Dispettosetto questo riccio!’ The spoiled girl momentarily distracted from the luxury of her surroundings by thoughts of des Grieux, her ‘In quelle trine morbide’ was beautifully sung and crowned with lovely top B♭s. The top C in the scene with Lescaut was properly euphoric, but Manon’s trills were tentatively sketched. Haroutounian presented ‘L’ora, o Tirsi, è vaga e bella’ as a calculated performance that pandered to Geronte’s vanity. The lack of self-restraint that permeates ‘Ah! Manon te solo brama’ was underplayed, but the biting cruelty of ‘Amore? Amore! Mio buon signore, ecco!’ was in Haroutounian’s portrayal more injurious than physical violence.

Placing Manon in an elevated prison cell, stage right, with des Grieux and Lescaut behind a gate at the rear of the stage, reinforced the audience’s appreciation of the emotional toll of Manon’s separation from her lover and brother, but the physical distance caused the pathos of ‘Tu, amore!? amore? Nell’onta non m’abbandoni?’ to seem more self-indulgent than poignant. Nonetheless, Haroutounian voiced ‘Ah! una minaccia funebre io sento!’ movingly, and, though she, too, struggled to project above the orchestral din, her singing in the act’s closing scene was vivid. The sorrow of ‘Sei tu che piangi?’ in the opera’s final act was only partially realized, but Haroutounian transcended awkward acting to lavish inviolable musicality on ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonataIo t’amo tanto e muoio!’ There were few histrionics in this Manon’s death: instead of resorting to the raspy Sprechstimme with which some singers intone the character’s final lines, Haroutounian truly sang Puccini’s notes. Manon does not inspire the kind of empathy that Mimì can impel in a good performance of La bohème, but Haroutounian’s portrayal was an honorable beginning to what will hopefully become a long relationship with the rôle—and an enjoyable addition to San Francisco Opera’s gallery of storied portraits of the first of Puccini’s piccole donne.