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.