In the early 18th century the Abbe Prevost published a scandalous story of a privileged young woman who is torn by the dual desires for passionate love (with the relatively poor Chevalier des Grieux) and worldly riches (with the wealthy Geronte). Puccini’s opera, based on Prevost’s famous work, is a stark morality play, in which Manon’s selfishness and careless frivolity destroys her.
Lianna Haroutounian’s Manon Lescaut
Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian brought gleaming vocal power and melodramatic spirit to her role debut as Manon. Manon’s aria In quelle trine morbide (sung beautifully by Haroutounian) is testimony of Manon’s desire to have it all – wealth and passionate love – although even when reminiscing about her passionate love affair, she seems oblivious to the hurt she caused des Grieux, by abandoning him without a farewell or explanation.
Haroutounian (occasionally overgesturing) embraced Manon’s thoughtless demeanor that pervades the first half of Puccini’s opera – in the first act, an impulsive escape in a stolen carriage with des Grieux, whom she had known for less than an hour; in the second act, presenting herself as Geronte’s bejeweled mistress, then attempting to escape his house with the jewels in her possession.
[Below: Lianna Haroutounian as Manon Lescaut; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
But in 18th century France, there were consequences of accepting rich gifts from a man of power, then attempting to reject that man’s expectations. Her arrest for prostitution, at Geronte’s instigation, changes the course of Manon’s life.
[Below: Geronte (Philip Skinner, standing right) enjoys the apprehension and arrest of Manon (Lianna Haroutounian, kneeling left) for attempting to leave his household with the jewels he gave her; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The second half of the opera deals with Manon’s downfall. She is imprisoned, branded (with a branding iron that realistically glows and gives off smoke as it touches bare skin) and banished to Louisiana.
It is Manon’s death scene in Louisiana that gives Haroutounian the opportunity to display the power and expressiveness of her spinto-weight soprano – most vivdly in the plaintive aria Sola perduta abbanddonata.
[Below: Manon (Lianna Haroutounian) lies dying in a Louisiana desert; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
This is Haroutounian’s fourth role at the San Francisco Opera since her debut in 2014 [Review: Lianna Haroutounian Triumphs as Tosca – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 2014, appearing then, as now, with New York tenor Brian Jagde. Her Butterfly [Review: A Transcendent “Madama Butterfly”, San Francisco Opera, November 6, 2016] and 2018 season opening-night Nedda [Review, Part II: Thrilling Performances in San Francisco Opera Season Opening “Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci”, September 7, 2018] both demonstrated Haroutounian’s mastery of iconic verismo soprano roles.
Brian Jagde’s Renato des Grieux
As Manon’s first love, the Chevalier des Grieux, Brian Jagde continued his exploration of the spinto tenor repertory, in a role debut that confirmed his ascendancy into the first rank of dramatic tenors. Puccini lavished his melodic gifts on the des Grieux role, which Jagde displayed with vocal power and lyric beauty.
Impressive in his opening aria Era von, belle, brune e blonde, Jagde masterfully performed the first act’s Donna non vidi mai, one of the greatest Italian operatic arias. As the opera progressed, Jagde’s comfort with this iconic role became inceasingly obvious, both vocally and dramatically.
[Below: Des Grieux (Brian Jagde, right) has reunited with Manon (Lianna Haroutounian, left) who has agreed to escape with him again; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
A highlight of the evening was the magnificently melodramatic final duet sweetly sung by Jagde and Haroutounian. Jagde’s Gelo di morte, reflects des Grieux’s despair at his inability to find any relief for the dying Manon., whose final words begin with the heartrending passage Mio dolce amor, tu piangi.
Jagde’s relationship with the San Francisco Opera, where he was a 2010, 2011 and 2012 Adler Fellow, has been significant to his career. The company has mounted new productions starring Jagde as Radames in Verdi’s “Aida” [Review: Zambello’s Spectacular “Aida”, San Francisco Opera, November 5, 2016] and as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “Tosca” [Review: An Appealing New “Tosca” for San Francisco Opera, October 3, 2018]. Jagde also opened the 2017-18 San Francisco Opera as Calaf in “Turandot” [Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Turandot” – Sonic Splendor, Visual Delight – September 8, 2017.]
For my interviews with Jagde, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Brian Jagde and More Questions for the Calaf: A Conversation with Brian Jagde.
Philip Skinner’s Geronte and Anthony Clark Evans’ Lescaut
Florida bass-baritone Philip Skinner assayed the role of the wealthy roue Geronte, Skinner’s 60th role assignment since his San Francisco Opera debut 39 seasons prior. I’ve seen him perform most of those roles and have regarded him as a stalwart, reliable comprimario singer.
Skinner’s Geronte surpasses his many past achievements, vocally secure as one expects from this fine artist, while projecting the flamboyance of a vengeful nobleman determined not be outwitted twice by a woman whom he regards merely as a sex object.
[Below: Phillip Skinner as Geronte; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
In another fine character study, Kentucky baritone Anthony Clark Evans performed the role of Manon’s randy brother, Lescaut.
[Below: Lescaut (Anthony Clark Evans, left) attends to the desires of his sister Manon (Lianna Haroutounian, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Earlier this year, Evans was impressive in the role of Zurga at the Santa Fe Opera [Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Passionate “Pearl Fishers” – June 29, 2019.] As Lescaut, Evans acted persuasively, and, particularly when performing the lyrical aria Una casetta angusta, displayed the mellifluous lyric baritone that had made his Zurga so successful.
Christopher Oglesby’s Edmondo and Other Cast Members
Georgia tenor Christopher Oglesby was a stalwart Edmondo in the first act scene at the Amiens coach stop. A current San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow, Oglesby proved a creditable performer in the most important of the comprimario roles he has taken on for the company to date.
[Below: Edmondo (Christopher Oglesby, center) is surrounded by ladies of Ameins; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Chinese tenor Zhengyi Bai, a 2019 San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow, performed the role of the snarling, deliciously fey Dancing Master with distinction.
[Below: the Dancing Master (Zhengyi Bai, center right) is skeptical of the dancing ability of Manon (Lianna Haroutounian, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Also in the cast were Georgia mezzo-soprano (and 2018-19 Adler Fellow) Ashley Dixon as A Singer; and San Francisco Opera Chorus Members soprano Angela Eden Moser, mezzo-soprano Sally Mouzon, soprano Jesslyn Thomas, and mezzo-soprano Laurel Cameron Porter as Madrigal singers.
South Korean baritone Seokjong Baek (and 2019 Adler Fellow) was both the first act Innkeepper and third act Naval Captain. California bass-baritone (and 2018-19 Adler Fellow) Christian Pursell was the third act Sergeant of Archers.
[Below: the Sergeant (Christian Pursell, left) engages des Grieux (Brian Jagde, front, second from right) who attempts to protect Manon (Lianna Haroutounian, front right) as the Naval Captain (Seokjong Baek, front right center in white uniform) looks on; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Maestro Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Italian Maestro Nicola Luisotti made a welcome return to the San Francisco Opera, where he served as Music Director for most of the past decade. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus (the latter under the direction of Scottish director Ian Robertson) responded beautifully to his inspired conducting. The orchestra’s powerful performance of the Intermezzo between the third and fourth acts was a highight of the evening.
I continue to recommend San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House (which I’ve reverentially nicknamed the “House of Puccini”) as the perfect place to experience a Puccini opera, whose soaring melodies and rich orchestration are enhanced by the opera house’s rich acoustics.
Olivier Tambosi’s Production
Two operatic versions of the story – Massenet’s “Manon” and Puccini’s – have secure places in Opera’s performance repertory. Puccini’s choice of scenes differs from Massenet’s version, whose consecutive scenes form a dramatic narrative. Puccini’s first two acts highlight the willful Manon’s escapades in pursuit of the twin goals of glittering wealth and passionate love, while the last two acts deal with Manon’s degradation and death.
French director Olivier Tambosi’s production sharply contrasts the opera’s two halves – the first two acts emphasizing elegant costumes, the latter two acts scenes of despair and terror.
[Below: Manon (Lianna Haroutounian, upper left) is at her prison window as des Grieux (Brian Jagde, bottom right) vows to secure her release; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
German production designer Frank Philipp Schlosssmann created the sets, Wisconsin designer Duane Schuler the lighting and California choreographer the dance sequences. California director Dave Maier choreographed the fights.
Thoughts on “Manon Lescaut”
Although Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (1890) and Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” (1892) are considered the first successful verismo operas 1893’s “Manon Lescaut” became Puccini’s first enduring success and the first full-length verismo opera to enter the world performance repertory.
In an earlier essay on the opera Echoes of Tristan – Thoughts on Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” I observed that German composer Richard Wagner’s influence on Puccini, evident throughout the body of Puccini’s operatic works, is particularly strong in “Manon Lescaut”. Puccini’s choice of a Louisiana desert as the site of Manon’s demise (dramatic liberties being taken in the exposition of Southern Louisiana’s geography) provides a desolate setting as lonely as Tristan’s Breton cliffside.
I enthusiastically recommend the San Francisco Opera cast and production of “Manon Lescaut” both for the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.