WNO’s ‘Manon Lescaut’: a Heroine We Believe In

What was it with Puccini and his women?

We know all about Mimi in “La Boheme” and “Madame Butterfly.” It’s a wonder he didn’t create Violetta, given his affinity for ladies dependent on men, falling in love with the wrong man, or ending up in tragic circumstances.

Manon Lescaut, a very young courtesan-type, seems to have attracted the genius successor to Verdi from the get-go, so much so that he ignored the fact that two operas had already been assayed about Manon, the heroine of a popular 18th-century novel by Abbe Prevost. Giacomo Puccini is said to have called Manon “a heroine I believe in. She can love more than one man. So, there can be more than one opera.”

On the surface of it, you have to wonder: Manon likes glitz, glitter and stuff, the high life, she is young, not exactly a femme fatale or even a practiced courtesan, but what she has is more than enough for Geronte, a wealthy, powerful, and need we say it, much older aristocrat who apparently sees her as a shiny elixir and rejuvenator of the flesh, a damsel he can dress up and own for his pleasure. Manon, who’s pushed on Geronte by her brother Lescaut for his own advancement—has a go at real love with the dashing, sensitive and impassioned young Chevalier des Grieux before she’s spirited away into the wealthy arms and high life of the world of Geronte.

That’s the setup, and you ask what’s to like about Manon. The way she’s embodied by soprano Patricia Racette in the Washington National Opera’s spring-season opener, there’s a lot to like, and even love about “Manon Lescaut,” both the character and the opera. In terms of both propensity of plot and music, this is early Puccini (1893), but it has all the earmarks and tells of his later grand works of genius, which followed “Lescaut—“La Boheme,” “Tosca” and “Madame Butterfly.”

We’ve already seen Racette, a singer with a rich, rangy voice, and in her case just as important, a gift, even a will to embody theatrically the parts she performs, in “Tosca,” but Manon, which she portrays for the first time in her career, is an entirely different challenge. It’s a traditional kind of role in the sense that it leads to wonderful duets (with the very able Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev soaring with her in heroic fashion) and arias. Chanev, in “Donna, non vidi mai,” sings with such believable passion that you understand as clear as heartbreak why he’s so smitten, and Racette when she joins him and by herself, gives him something to be smitten about, in spite of Manon’s appetites for baubles and dresses.

Director John Pascoe has staged most of the production in traditional fashion, with sometimes dazzling period costumes and wigs that have of their own. His principal design conceit is giant leaves in which audiences can read pages from the novel—an indication that, if you haven’t read the book, that Abbe Prevost writes in a style perfect for the creation of operas—super-charged poetically and emotionally. It’s a conceit that grounds the production when it needs to be, except on one occasion when we see entirely too much of the book, and not enough of the characters.

The production and the opera centers squarely on Manon and des Grieux, since the brother, ably sung and portrayed by Giorgio Caoduro, isn’t so much an imposing player as an onlooker. Jake Gardner as Geronte is a threatening, shadowing physical presence but doesn’t impress vocally.

In Racette and Chanev, “Manon Lescaut” has a convincing, passionate pair of lovers, ill-matched initially, but hearts entwined desperately, and sadly in the end, when Manon and des Grieux, through a series of revenge-minded events engineered by Geronte, end up in French-held Louisiana, cast out and fled into what appears to be a great desert. From their first meeting, recognition of love to Manon’s tragic end in a strange land, these two rise vocally and emotionally to making you care about the two lovers.

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