National Opera's sharp stab at Puccini

Its `Manon Lescaut' passionate, textured


March 29, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The massive, omnipresent object hanging at a diagonal across the stage in the Washington National Opera's appealing new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut puts everything into sharp perspective. It's the flat, well-worn blade of a guillotine, a reminder of what's in store for all the preening Parisian aristocrats and their retinues -- the obscenely rich, indulgent class that Manon finds so irresistible -- come the revolution.

Puccini probably never considered this 1893 opera, his first international success, to be a morality lesson about French history; he preferred to boil a story down to plain old romance and tragedy, centered around a sympathetic, if flawed, woman. Politics and social upheaval aren't even in the libretto. (For an Italian opera about the French Revolution, the public had to wait three more years for Giordano's Andrea Chenier.)

And, besides, Manon -- the convent-bound innocent swept off her feet by a young, poor writer and then drawn dangerously to the demimonde life -- doesn't even meet her doom in France, but in America. (Puccini and his librettists, a little weak on geography, originally specified a desert outside New Orleans.)

So what's with the guillotine? It's just one way that director and set/costume designer John Pascoe has imaginatively and incisively widened the work's scope. This Manon Lescaut fills in edges around a plot that the composer telescoped in the interests of operatic flow. The result is an effective layering of context. Motivations -- and consequences -- seem to loom larger in a staging that so vividly places us in the thick of a France that will soon crumble.

The look and feel of the whole production serve Puccini's creation remarkably well, while also providing a solid vehicle for the company's return to the renovated Kennedy Center Concert Hall after a year of being sometimes awkwardly accommodated at DAR Constitution Hall. The opening performance Saturday night had an understandably celebratory flavor.

Washington National Opera general director Placido Domingo, who has given many a vocally splendid performance as the hero Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut during his long career, drew on that familiarity to conduct an involving, sweeping performance. The famed tenor will not soon become the next Herbert von Karajan, but his opera conducting keeps getting more assured and sensitive.

What he missed in terms of cohesion -- during the first act's crowded ensembles, for example -- Domingo made up for in lyrical depth. And once past some initial tentativeness, the orchestra proved a sturdy ally; the musicians were really cooking by the end of Act 2.

In the title role, Veronica Villarroel used her distinctive timbre, with its chesty inflections, to telling effect. She created a suitably pallid creature at the start, when the character has only the cloister to look forward to, and added sufficient fire and personality in Act 2, when we suddenly are confronted with Manon, the original Material Girl. The subsequent transformation to Immaterial Girl, deported for prostitution, drew from the soprano terrific intensity and pathos. Some upper-register stridency or intonation-drooping did little damage to Villarroel's portrayal.

Franco Farina's Des Grieux was a generally engaging fellow with a beefy sound that could be effectively softened to provide nuance. The tenor tapped the hot emotion and pain of the last two acts with particular skill. As Manon's wealthy benefactor and eventual destroyer, Geronte, William Parcher had more theatrical than vocal presence, but proved an effective protagonist.

Roberto Servile, as Manon's morally inconsistent brother, relied on blunt, flat top notes to make his points. Not much of an actor, either. Among the smaller roles, Corey Evan Rotz stood out for his warm tones and easy manner as Edmondo. The chorus did mostly polished work.

Pascoe's striking visual sense -- skies that change hue with an ominous tinge; a dazzling, jewel-filled tower that menaces, rather than graces, a palatial boudoir; occasional use of film -- provides continual interest, just as his direction ensures a steady pulse to the drama.

Not everything persuades. There might be a bit too much of pleasant peasantry in the opening act. And a lot of slo-mo, balletic movements by the upper-crusties and clerics who call on Manon in Act 2 look a little silly; we're talking Fop City.

Video projections, designed by Michael Clark, spice up a couple scenes. In the first act, the arrival of the carriage that brings Manon to the inn where her life will be changed by meeting the ardent Des Grieux is viewed on a screen. The effect is almost hokey, but it works.

Another projection, accompanying the orchestra's playing of the soulful Intermezzo, offers images of the rolling sea to suggest the sad journey of Manon and Des Grieux to an American penal colony. Too bad the wavy sight is blended with scenes of the kissing lovers in poses right off romance novel covers.

Pascoe and Domingo have moved that Intermezzo from its original placement before Act 3 to the start of Act 4. Purists may carp, but you'll get no argument from me. It seems to heighten the finale's desolation.

Ultimately, Pascoe's concept -- exquisitely supported throughout by lighting designer Joan Sullivan-Genthe -- enlivens, even enriches Manon Lescaut. It's a very impassioned, sensual production, a satisfying match for Puccini's very impassioned, sensual score.


What: Manon Lescaut

Where: Kennedy Center, 2700 F. St., N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 4 (matinee), 6, 10, 13, 16 and 19

Tickets: $42 to $285

Call: 202-295-2400 or visit

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