Impressive leads make ‘Manon Lescaut’ highly worthwhile

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Photos by Adam Birkan.

David Shengold | Guest Reviewer

Chautauqua Opera Company, a cornerstone of the Institution for more than 80 years, opened another highly worthwhile production Friday under the direction of the company’s Artistic and General Director Jay Lesenger. Giacomo Puccini’s 1893 Manon Lescaut — his third completed opera — was the solid hit that allowed the composer the prestige and economic base to go on to compose four of the most popular operas in the repertory (La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot). Full of great tunes and all kinds of musical devices Puccini drew upon again in those “greatest hits” works, Manon Lescaut  offers a kind of youthful freshness and (eventually) unbridled passion that can inform and impress both Puccini’s committed fans and those who find him “too popular” in approach.

The work itself is worth the trip to Norton Hall. The four leading roles are all in the hands of serious American professionals who — even if not all ideally cast in some aspects of the score — deliver enjoyable and musically impressive performances, doubtless in the process imparting lessons to the company’s Young Artists appearing in smaller and choral roles. Beautiful soprano Barbara Shirvis makes her local debut in the title role: a young country lass whose journey to a convent is detoured into her becoming Paris’ No. 1 material girl. Longtime Chautauqua Opera favorite Robert Breault plays Des Grieux, the wannabe divinity student whose life a chance encounter with Manon totally transforms. Michael Chioldi, a baritone who has also appeared here before, is Manon’s officer brother — another Lescaut with an eye on every potential big chance. The sugar daddy who enables both Lescauts to enter Parisian high society — by jettisoning, at least for a while, the aristocratic but allowance-deprived Des Grieux — is Pittsburgh-based bass Kevin Glavin. The characters derive from a still highly readable 1731 novella by Abbé Prévost. The singers, and conductor James Meena, all come from the highest echelons of North America regional opera — Chioldi had a few apprentice gigs at the Met — and in all cases have virtues and strengths that deserve wider career profiles.

The leads do not look like the teenagers they’re portraying. If they were teenagers, they wouldn’t make it through Act 1. Shirvis’ handsome figure and Breault’s ardor soon make anyone listening to the music forget the disparity. The soprano’s full lyric voice looks back to a kind of American opera and theater music singer (such as Dorothy Kirsten or Jean Fenn) we don’t hear much these days. She can float and curl it around almost all of Puccini’s multifarious demands here, with only some few high forte notes turning hard (if still firmly on pitch). Breault, with his superb command of soft dynamics and half-tones, is more suitably voiced for Massenet’s Des Grieux; the Puccini version is grueling and ideally needs a “wine and sunshine” Italianate quality he doesn’t possess. (Not only Italians do — alongside Enrico Caruso, the greatest Des Grieux have been Sweden’s Jussi Bjoerling and Brooklyn’s Richard Tucker.) In some places, one sensed an uncharacteristic straining to fill lines, which causes minor pitch derogations. But Breault can supply ringing climaxes, and much of his phrasing is insightful and expressive. The dapper, light granite-voiced Chioldi, and Glavin — a naturally funny actor on a par with John Goodman, who unlike many buffo, or comic, singers can actually sing with rich, unspoilt tone — could sing their parts on any stage in the world. All those singers handled the English translation pretty well, with Chioldi taking the prize for sharp diction.

In recent seasons, Chautauqua Opera has been doing one-off Italian-language stagings in the Amphitheater: After Bellini’s Norma in 2010 and Verdi’s Luisa Miller last summer, Lesenger offered Lucia di Lammermoor July 7. Those three works all can be fairly placed in the bel canto school of opera, though Verdi’s Schiller-based drama really shades musically into the full Romanticism his best-known works display.

Manon Lescaut, despite its early 18th-century setting, falls into the operatic school called “verismo” or “realism.” The movement — often involving peasants and ordinary contemporary people (rather than aristocrats or mythical figures) in plots and generally calling for heavier orchestral texture and les florid vocal lines than what came before — was sparked by the international success of Bizet’s initially derided Carmen after its game-changing Viennese revival of 1875. Verismo came to a head in Italy with the breakaway triumphs of the gutsy one-acts Cavalleria rusticana (1890) by Pietro Mascagni and Pagliacci (1892) by Ruggero Leoncavallo — whose friendship with his one-time apartment mate Puccini was ruined when the latter stole his idea for an opera about the life and loves of Parisian Bohemians for his 1896 follow-up to Manon Lescaut.

In Manon Lescaut, there are certainly some veristic touches: for example, the bluff writing for an officer and a sergeant-at-arms (both well-handled by baritone Ricardo Rivera) and the little cameo of the Lamplighter going about his nightly rounds, a passage given ringing voice by tenor Christopher Hutchinson. (He should know that this tiny part was the 1930 operatic debut role of Bjoerling, later the best Des Grieux on commercial recordings). But also veristic is the immediacy and “real-time” pacing of the love duets between the central lovers. Their musical procedures contrast — in the opera’s first two acts a little awkwardly — with the more coloristically “French” episodes involving rollicking tavern choruses and (in Act 2) the deliberately archaic music accompanying pampered Manon’s lessons in dance and music. Perhaps mindful of the extant, popular operatic versions of the story by Danie François Auber (1856) and Jules Massenet (1884), Puccini introduces too much horseplay and “local color” in the opening act at Amiens, so that neither Des Grieux nor (especially) Manon gets the kind of momentous, telling initial entry into the piece Puccini pulled off with such mastery for his later romantic leads.

In general, the production is attractive, faithful to the libretto — I’ve seen Manon played as a crack-smoking prostitute working for fashion director Geronte and dying not in the “désert,” or wilderness, of Louisiana, but on an industrial trash heap — and sympathetically conducted, but to my tastes both Lesenger and Meena go a bit overboard in these more comic, less veristic passages. The capable orchestra overbalances the singers in Act 1’s high jinks — later settling down appreciably. And the direction permits or encourages distracting TV-caricatured performances by Manon’s dance and wig masters and the mezzo “musico” (meant to represent a male castrato) sent to entertain her. Also, one of the “fallen women” being deported in what should be a heart-rending scene in Act 3 goes wildly over the top, emitting Bird Lady of Chaillot squeaks and drawing focus.

The rest is admirable. Lesenger and his principals understand the tragic stakes of the love story and present it in direct, visually sensible terms, with Meena clearly well-versed in the idiom. Peter Dean Beck’s evocative sets — simple, as they should be, for the couple’s final confrontation with Nature — and aptly sumptuous costumes (B. G. FitzGerald) and wigs (Georgianna Eberhard). Carol Rausch’s chorus certainly enters into the show with gusto and sounds very good when onstage. When in Act 1 a group first sings from the wings, there is some sonic distortion. Also praiseworthy were cleanly produced lyric tenor Ben Gulley’s Edmondo and the musico’s back-up singers: Kaitlin Bertenshaw, Dee Donasco, Courtney Miller and Rachel Sliker.

Something Manon Lescaut shares with Luisa Miller is that the music, while pleasant and tuneful throughout, grows in power and dramatic effectiveness by the act. What can seem a bit formulaic at the opening turns gripping and moving in the last hour. For the record, Chautauqua Opera gives the audience two intermissions with a short pause before the short — and devastating — final scene. My other practical advice would be to dress in layers, as the hall can turn stuffy while the doors are closed.

Beyond the generally clear diction, English supertitles are projected above the stage and they seem to me slightly easier to read than in years past. However, in places in the orchestra section, the top line of the title screens are hard to read because of interference from the lights battened up above the stage. (The payoff is that Michael Baumgarten does make splendid use of all those orange gels in giving us striking sky effects, particularly during the Intermezzo and in the final scene.) A few mistakes creep in — Des Grieux fights with the Lousiana governor’s nephew, not his son — but in general, they help.

Again, if you go tonight, stick around for those final two acts. It is the third Manon Lescaut production I’ve seen in the last few months, and many in the Chautauqua audience seemed to react just like those I saw in Freiburg, Germany, and Philadelphia: amused but a little puzzled after Act I; happy enough after Act 2 with its great, wrenching love duet; offering a huge ovation after the truly great ensemble scene and Des Grieux’s impassioned plea to join Manon (Breault really pulls out the stops here) that ends Act 3; and in tears for Act 4 (Shirvis acts and phrases the tricky “Sola, perduta abbandonata” with great skill). Chautauqua Opera’s leads offer a level of commitment and professional savoir-faire that you might not be privileged to see soon on many of the world’s “great” opera stages. And Puccini’s first masterpiece still packs a punch.

A Philadelphia-based arts critic, David Shengold has written for Opera News, Opera (UK), Theater Journal and Time Out New York, among many venues. He has contributed program essays to the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Covent Garden and Washington National Opera programs and lectured for NYCO,  Glimmerglass Festival and Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre. He trained and acted at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass., and has taught on opera, literature and cultural history at Oberlin, Mount Holyoke and Williams colleges.