Leah Harrison | Staff Writer
Economic hardship translates to programmatic caution for many opera companies. Desperate for dependable revenue, they cling to the old favorites, hoping to re-enter the black. The frequent programming of La Traviata, Madama Butterfly and La Bohème has become redundant and creatively stale.
In programming his company’s second operatic production, Chautauqua Opera’s Artistic and General Director Jay Lesenger took a risk, avoiding the chestnuts but looking to the tree. At 7:30 p.m. tonight, Norton Hall hosts the opening production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. A second performance will be heard on Monday evening.
Though not as well known as La Bohème, Manon Lescaut boasts all the musical qualities that have made Puccini a household name.
“Musically, it’s everything you would expect from Puccini,” conductor James Meena said. “There are wonderful melodies, beautiful orchestration, an interesting story that’s very much based on the emotional state of the characters and the drama they go through. All of the canon, all of Puccini’s music that follows, it’s all here in Manon Lescaut. As you’re listening, you think, ‘Oh, that’s La Bohème. Oh, that’s Tosca, that’s Madama Butterfly.’ It’s fun to explore an early piece by a composer and realize that, by this time, he had figured it all out.”
Like all the principal roles cast in Chautauqua’s production, it is Meena’s first performance of Manon Lescaut. Now that he is well acquainted with the score, he can see no outstanding reason why Manon Lescaut has not risen to the same popularity so many of Puccini’s other operas enjoy.
“Actually, when this was premiered, and for the decades after, Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s most famous and poplar opera, eclipsing La Bohème and Tosca, and certainly Butterfly, which was an absolute fiasco when it premiered in 1904,” Meena said. “But Manon Lescaut, from the first performance was a hit — a mega-hit.”
Barbara Shirvis, who portrays Manon, speculates that at first glance, her character may not be as sympathetic as Mimi or Butterfly.
“She’s a material girl, so people make judgments. But all she wants is love and comfort, and a little control over her life. I find it hard to fault her,” Shirvis said. “She’s very young and like so many women throughout time, controlled, and she has a lot of spirit. It’s unfortunate that she can’t be who she is. It may be the character, but after coming to know this score, I’m shocked that it’s not more popular. It wasn’t rescued from Puccini’s trashcan.”
In Chautauqua Opera’s well-established tradition of experimentation, Lesenger moved the orchestral interlude that is written as the prelude to Act 3 to sit between acts 3 and 4. Originally, the interlude would have functioned similarly to an overture, bringing the musical ideas back to the audience’s ear after an intermission. In Chautauqua’s production, the interlude accompanies Manon’s journey to New Orleans.
“Dramatically, it makes more sense between the third and fourth, because that’s the voyage from one country to another and the longest passage of time between scenes,” Lesenger said. “It is also very practical, because we’re combining acts 3 and 4 — the fourth act is a very short act, it’s just an extended duet — so it bridges the scene change and the two acts.”
Other directorial decisions include heightened theatricality.
“I wanted to explore the artificiality of the 18th century, so we’re very present in the theater,” he said. “The lights are exposed, the structure of the scenery is exposed — it’s meant to look artificial.”
Though the opera is ultimately a tragedy, Lesenger plans to bring out the humor with the help of Kevin Glavin, a renowned buffo basso, or comic bass. Cast as Geronte, Manon’s older, richer admirer, Glavin plays a blustering man whose interest in Manon teeters between fatherly affection and lust. Glavin’s favorite scene shows him finding Manon in his bed with another lover, giving him a chance to transform from a silly, hopeful figure into a more serious, threatening one.
“It’s easier for a comic to be serious than a serious character to become funny,” Glavin said.
Competing for Manon’s affection is Des Grieux, played by tenor Robert Breault. In his 10th role with Chautauqua Opera, Breault is happy for the opportunity to learn a new role, especially one that represents unconditional love and a cautionary tale.
“All he wants is to be with her,” Breault said. “That’s his greatest virtue, it’s his greatest fault: a desire to have her to himself.”
Baritone Michael Chioldi plays the third strong male force in Manon’s life, her brother Lescaut. Somewhat of an opportunist, he facilitates Manon’s relationship with the wealthier prospect, seeing his chance for a cushioned life. But when he perceives Manon’s yearning for Des Grieux, he helps the two in their union.
As is the case with any opera performed in Norton Hall, Manon Lescaut will be sung in English. Because it is the cast’s first experience with the opera, they have no Italian to override, but singing in the vernacular provides luxuries and challenges Italian would not.
Singing in the audience’s language relieves the cumbersome act of translating line by line, though supertitles will still be projected in Norton Hall. But it also enables the expectation that every word will be understood.
“Women don’t sing anywhere near where we speak; men do, even tenors,” Shirvis said. “As the only principal woman, it’s doubly difficult for me to get my words across. It’s a challenge. It’s hard for the audience to listen in that higher octave. I hope that they’re getting it. You can’t really clamp down on consonants when you’re up high and pouring out the tone.
“But we are first and foremost entertainers. Our responsibility is to make the audience feel something, so I like the idea of the English for that reason. And when you’re singing in the one language you’ve grown up speaking, there’s a lot more immediacy to it.”
“I’m convinced that if Puccini were alive and came to Chautauqua, he would have written an English version,” Breault said, “even if he didn’t have the Norton requirement of singing in English. He would have never allowed a piece to be written in anything other than the vernacular of the audience.”
No matter what language an opera company chooses, Manon Lescaut is a story of unconditional love.
“Before meeting Des Grieux, Manon never knew anyone who valued her for who she is in her heart; she was always a bauble to be traded,” Shirvis said. “Des Grieux stays with her through the worst circumstances, and she grows up and realizes what real love is and how redeeming that is.”