Giacomo Puccini was nothing if not a ladies' man. More than half of his dozen stage works were named for his leading ladies, and the first of these, "Manon Lescaut," was presented Wednesday evening at the Lyric Opera House.
"Manon Lescaut" shares at least one trait -- a heroine who dies in the end -- with the Big Three Puccini operas that followed it. But it is still not quite the audience-pleaser that "La Boheme," "Tosca" and "Madame Butterfly" have long been.
One reason is the tale itself. Huge chunks of the story take place offstage between the acts, while you're out sipping a drink at intermission. But the thickening plot is not really what Puccini is about here. All that matters is the relationship between his chief characters, and that is also the strength of Baltimore Opera's production -- particularly soprano Barbara Daniels, who is superb in the title role.
Manon is a dubious heroine. She's quick to change her tune to suit her whim, not much caring what poor chap she leaves in her wake. It's her young lover Des Grieux who's the tragic one, willing to go anywhere and give up anything to satisfy his obsession for her. However, Daniels' Manon is completely believable and sympathetic as she moves from shy coquette in the first act to bored socialite in the second, and ultimately stripped down to hopeless wretch in the finale.
As Des Grieux, tenor Giuliano Ciannella gave a much broader depiction with perhaps the best pure vocal instrument in the company.
The weakness of this production is the first act. Conductor Joseph Rescigno coaxed the sumptuous orchestral sound that Puccini requires but some minor characters' voices were overwhelmed in a wall of melody.
But the patient listener was amply rewarded. The sets were exactly right. And it became inevitable that this Des Grieux -- indeed, any Des Grieux -- would have found Barbara Daniels' Manon irresistible.
The opera will be repeated at 8:15 p.m. today and at 3 p.m. tomorrow. Tonight's performance will feature Elizabeth Byrne and Vincenzo Scuderi in the principal roles.