John Pascoe’s intelligently conceived 2004 production of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” returned nine years later to the Washington National Opera for its first revival at the Kennedy Center. Strongly cast in both its major and minor roles, it provided the role debut for Puccini specialist Patricia Racette and introduced Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev to new audiences in the United Statesa
[Below: What’s the Worst that Can Happen? Des Grieux (Kamen Chanev, right) finds himself attracted to Manon (Patricia Racette, left) whose family is sending her to a convent; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.].
John Pascoe’s Production
John Pascoe follows in the tradition of the great 20th century production designers responsible for conceptualizing the staging, designing the sets and costumes and directing the performers in the operas he assays.
Three of Pascoe’s most successful productions are associated with the Washington National Opera.
He has made an invaluable contribution to the reputation of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” through his ingenious staging of this potentially difficult masterwork. [See The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008 and Fleming, Fabiano, Frizza Fuel San Francisco Opera’s Flaming, Fulfilling First “Lucrezia Borgia” – September 23, 2011 and A Second Look: “Lucrezia Borgia” at the San Francisco Opera – October 2, 2011.]
I recently reported on his hip “Don Giovanni” [Ildar Abdrazakov is Don Giovanni in the Pascoe Production’s Revival – Washington National Opera, October 7, 2012]. If his Mozart hints at his admiration of aspects of pop culture, his “Manon Lescaut” manifests his encyclopedic knowledge of European cultural history.
For his “Manon Lescaut” Pascoe employs history-inspired details enveloped in surreality. The details of the Inn at Amiens, and the quay in which the sentenced women are collected for exile suggest careful study of 18th century venues. (Pascoe’s device of granting each of the exiles a moment of farewell with their loved ones is yet another example of how Pascoe’s unconventional staging can resolve an inherent confusion in the libretto – how is it that only Des Grieux and Lescaut have enough money to bribe the guards to allow a few moments alone?)
In contrast, in the second act in Geronte’s lavish apartments and the fourth act in an imaginary Louisiana wilderness, Pascoe creates first a dreamworld of ancien regime excess and then a wasteland nightmare where bits of the second act’s furnishings reappear as broken debris in French America.
[Below: Manon Lescaut (Patricia Racette, left) and Des Grieux (Kamen Chanev, right) wander through a Louisiana wasteland; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
Throughout the opera, Pascoe employs a technique that helps bring a unity to the four scenes that Puccini mined from the Abbe Prevost’s great 18th century series of novels. The forestage is backed by the representation of pages of Prevost’s manuscript on a backwall that, from time to time, splits apart along a jagged vertical line, opening to the four main scenes – the Inn, Geronte’s apartments, the quay, and the wilderness.
At those times when Des Grieux or Manon have a major aria to sing, they have moved towards the front of the stage and the manuscript wall closes behind them, to reopen at aria’s end to resume the action.
In another brilliant stroke, the famous Intermezzo that occurs at the beginning of the third act, is moved to that act’s end. The third and fourth acts are thereby combined with the Intermezzo (which, after all, includes music that is both reminiscent of the third act and foreshadowing of the fourth) providing a continuity between two powerful scenes.
During the Intermezzo, the manuscript wall opens yet again and the audience experiences the waves of the open sea, as Manon and Des Grieux sail on to America – an effect that Puccini himself – the creator of the extraordinary transition of scenes in the final act of “Madama Butterfly” – might have found absorbing.
Patricia Racette’s Manon Lescaut
Patricia Racette, who recently added Tosca [See A New “Tosca” for Houston Grand Opera – January 30, 2010] to her repertory, has taken on another of Puccini’s roles for the dramatic soprano.
Vocally, Manon Lescaut is a superb role for Racette’s voice of power and beauty. She is lyrical in her second act aria of regret and discontent, even as she sits among the riches she is enjoying at Geronte’s expense. After fortune’s wheel turns against her, she is soaked in pathos and despair in her demanding fourth act aria.
Kamen Chanev’s Des Grieux
Although I had seen Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev earlier in Berlin in the not quite as heavy role of Riccardo [see my review at Power Verdi: Chanev, Marambio, Ataneli in Deutsche Oper Berlin “Ballo” – April 25, 2009], and had high expectations of his Des Grieux, they were handily exceeded by a memorably dramatic performance. Chanev’s large voice blended well with Racette’s, notably in the duet of reconciliation that occurs in the latter part of the second act.
I’ve always felt that, if the opera ended at the end of the third act it should have been called “Des Grieux” because of its powerful portrayal of a passionate young man whose chance meeting of a young girl at an Inn in Amiens ultimately destroys his happiness. Premiering in 1893, Puccini created in this role one of the great melodramatic tenor roles of the early and mid-1990s – belonging to the great tradition of Turiddu in Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (1890), Canio in Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” (1892) and the title role in Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier” (1896).
There has been an observable shortage of tenors with the right voices for these roles, but Chanev, yet another of the artists hailing from the lightly populated Balkan country of Bulgaria, is an admirable Des Grieux.
Giorgio Caoduro’s Lescaut
If one is in need of a baritone to play a charming rascal, one could do far worse than the young Italian singer Giorgio Caoduro. Teaching his sister the fine art of gold-digging and her lover Des Grieux the art of both skillful play and cheating in games of chance, Lescaut is a seemingly cheerful chap with a dark soul.
[Below: Lescaut (Giorgio Caoduro, left) gives his sister Manon (Patricia Racette, right) some brotherly advice; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
Caoduro brought to the role a fine lyric baritone, whose vocal beauty and flexibility is evidenced in his successes in Donizetti roles written in a lighter style over a half century earlier. His Sergeant Belcore in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” was hilarious [See Vargas Shines Bright in Stellar S. F. “L’Elisir d’Amore” – November 9, 2008].
In a pinch, replacing an ailing colleague, he was able to display mastery of Doctor Dulcamara’s patter [Los Angeles Opera’s Magic Potion: Nino Machaidze in “L’Elisir d’Amore” – September 12, 2009.]
All in all, however, at this point in his career, I prefer Caoduro playing the young scoundrel, Lescaut, rather than the older scoundrel, Dulcamara.
Other Cast Members
Two other cast members stood out for me as well. Jake Gardner, who is invaluable in the major bass-baritone character roles was a triumphant Geronte de Ravoir [See, for a discussion of Gardner roles, Glimmerglass Festival’s Annual Salute to Broadway: Dwayne Croft in Vibrant, Affecting “Music Man” – July 24, 2012.]
[Below: Geronte de Ravoir (Jake Gardner, left above) regards Manon Lescaut (Patricia Racette, right below) as his possession; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
Luxuriously cast as the Lead Singer in the Madrigal was the Argentine soprano Daniela Mack, who now deserves recognition as a principal singer on international stages [See, for example, An “Idomeneo” Surprise in San Francisco – Daniela Mack’s Princely Idamante – October 26, 2008.]
She and four colleagues were humorously choreographed (in an opera where light-hearted moments are rather few) in a witty staging of ensemble singing.
[Below: Daniela Mack performs the lead (first row, center) of a group of madrigal singers who are being observed by Lescaut (Giorgio Caoduro, right.]
I have long argued that reviewers of live operas should share with their readers where they are coming from – what criteria they are using for judging a performance.
I have written in the past of my admiration of this earliest operatic “hit” of composer Giacomo Puccini, which I believe is an extraordinary synthesis of the later Wagnerian style of composition with the melodramatic Italian style that came to be called verismo. [For my extended essay on the subject see: Echoes of Tristan – Thoughts on Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.”]
I have also written about what I regard as the insightful staging of difficult works by stage director and set and costume designer John Pascoe, and have spoken highly in past reviews of the work of singers Patricia Racette, Kamen Chanev, Giorgio Caoduro, Jake Gardner and Daniela Mack.
Therefore, it should not be a surprise that I found the Washington National Opera performance of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” to be an exciting evening, that brilliantly displayed the virtues of this rather under-appreciated masterpiece.
I recommend this production and cast unreservedly.