Puccini’s Manon Lescaut

    The star of the show is, of course, soprano Patricia Racette, who added the title role to her repertory for the first time last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Racette is a favorite at the Washington National Opera, perhaps as close to a house soprano as we’re likely to get. I loved her in the 2011 Tosca, and the 2009 Peter Grimes, and still remember her searing performance in the premiere of Tobias Picker’s Emmeline in Santa Fe in 1996.
    Racette isn’t a naturally gifted singer, but rises to greatness through force of will, commitment, technique and passionate intensity. Is her voice the most sensuously beautiful? No, but she can darken it to chilling effect, and she has wonderful control over its dynamic range. It is at its most lovely when deployed in intimate passages, softly, with a rounder, warmer tone. Pushed to greater volume in the upper range, the voice has a pronounced vibrato, but it’s not a vibrato that interferes with a clear sense of pitch. You wish the slight throbbing sound wasn’t there, but then that feels like quibbling because the vibrato never gets in the way of the singer’s expression and communication.
    She is a fine actress, too, and never performs as if the singing is all that’s required. Her acting goes deep. Not content merely with the well-timed gesture, Racette fully embodies her characters, in her posture, movement and silences. Racette is now in her mid-40s, but the Manon who flounced on stage in Act I was very much the girl who Prevost tells us was “even younger” than her 17-year-old lover Des Grieux. Throughout this and the next act–when the plot puts the young lovers on a rapid descent into misery and abjection–Racette’s coquettishness was entirely believable.
    It also easy to be enthusiastic about the baritone Giorgio Caoduro, who sang Manon’s brother (and pimp) Lescaut. Caodoru is a dynamic presence on stage, athletic and alert to the drama, and he sings with a pleasing voice and easy facility.
    Beyond that, however, the production gets weaker. John Pascoe’s 2007 staging is aggressively ugly at times, especially in the first act, which looks like it fell off the back of a second-rate bus-and-truck company. The central staircase is too large and intrusive, and makes the space feel cluttered, constricting rather than opening up possibilities for stage movement. The flower garlands and other kitschy touches suggest the unapologetic camp of a ballet set. Larger mirrors don’t seem to add much beyond more visual dissonance. A sparer approach to Act II helped and the blasted desert of Act IV was effective. The director might consider refining the stage business in Act III, in which Lescaut and Des Grieux make a failed attempt to rescue Manon from the soldiers who are leading her to exile. There was a lot of shuffling without much purpose or clarity.
    As Des Grieux, Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev got off to a bumpy start (the first several minutes of Act I need some serious rehearsal on everyone’s part). His voice blooms only when he throws himself into the red-blooded declamation of Puccini at his most lyrically intense. If the music doesn’t call for ardor, Chanev’s production feels scattered and choppy. But the opera builds throughout its four acts, almost as if Puccini, in his first great work, was learning moment by moment how to be Puccini. And as it builds in intensity, the tenor is given more and more of the spotlight. By the end, Chanev was in his comfort zone and his performance made a stronger impression.
    One can’t go to the opera these days without being aware of the economy and the challenges faced by all opera companies, which struggle to make the most of limited budgets in lean times. Critics remain on the outside of the hard decisions about how put on a show without hemorrhaging red ink. But I can’t help feel that there was a leaner, meaner, and yet more dramatically powerful way to stage this Manon Lescaut. Yes, the costumes were lovely and sumptuous, but they aren’t really necessary. More could be left to imagination, which always is kinder to the mise en scene than cheap efforts at luxury.
    Parting thought: Manon Lescaut calls out for new cinematic treatment. If the dreadful Les Miserables can triumph at the box office, couldn’t Manon (with or without music by Puccini or Massenet) have a decent run? The bones of the story felt as fresh last night as they must have in the 1730s.

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