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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Opera Review: The Ways and Means to New Orleans

Patrica Racette sparkles in Washington's Manon Lescaut.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Her just deserts: Patricia Racette in the last scene of Manon Lescaut.
Photo by Scott Suchman © 2013 Washington National Opera/The Kennedy Center.
Mention the name Patricia Racette around opera lovers and you'll get a knowing smile. The New Hampshire-bred diva may enjoy have the same "instant" name recognition as other artists at her current level, but she is known for her smoky, spinto voice, committed acting and regal stage presence. All those qualities were on display Monday night at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, where Ms. Racette is singing her first run in the title role of Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

Based on the same 1731 novella by Abbé Prevost that inspired the 1884 opera by Jules Massenet (which premiered just nine years before) Manon Lescaut falls just outside the "big three" of Puccini operas. This was the young composer's third opera--written just before La bohème--and his first real success. Puccini's heavy, quasi-Wagnerian orchestration and the exposed nature of the title part--a coquette who must be able to sing like Floria Tosca--mean that revivals of this show are infrequent, especially since it lacks the big hit tunes of the Massenet version.

Enter Ms. Racette. She radiated vocal presence and a keen, yet never unpleasant tone using the big middle register of her instrument to draw in her audience and make this teenage would-be Violetta a convincing and three-dimensional person. To that effect, she slowly unpacked her instrument in the course of the first act, revealing the core of flexible steel that is at the center of her voice. When she came together with Des Grieux, (Kamen Chanev) the young seminary student who falls hard for her charms, the opera became electric.

In Act II, the show played like Italian opera crossed with French farce. Manon's sleazy brother Lescaut (Giorgio Caoduro) sets her up with a sugar daddy (Jake Gardner) whom she then tries to rob. This act has the first of her big duets with Des Grieux, a soaring theme that recurs throughout the opera and owes something to Wagner. It was all tragedy in Act III, including the moving scene on the quayside when she and Des Grieux (the second duet) are packed up and shipped to Louisiana as punishment for her naughtiness. The last scene, with Ms. Racette alone in the wilderness had nerve-jangling power, fuelled by the stark orchestration and the sheer nerve of her performance.

Des Grieux is a role fraught with danger for any singer, with bright, ringing passages over a heavy orchestra. Mr. Chanev has the vocal ability for the part, a bright, bell-like tenor with no break between the chest and head register and a welcome touch of squillo in the triumphant moments. His performance progressed with the opera, showing a welcome, trumpet-like ring in his final scene with Ms. Racette. Although good singing is more important than acting ability in this opera, this promising artist may wish to focus on his thespian skills.

More impressive: the smooth baritone of Giorgio Caoduro as Lescaut. He captured the cynicism of this character with a warm, velvety baritone that combined world-weariness with an (almost) unhealthy affection for his sister. Best of all was their long scena together at the start of Act II, where their relationship is fully explored to Puccini's sensitive accompaniment. Bass Jake Gardner gave a fine supporting performance as Geronte da Revoir, Manon's benefactor. Mezzo Daniela Mack made the most of the Singer in the Act II baroque pastiche, a star-making compromario role.

The worn, beaten-down look of John Pascoe's productin suited the story's seedy atmosphere. Fittingly, the show was framed by a sliding show curtain which comes together to reveal projected quotations from the Prevost novel, filling the audience in on story points missed by the librettists. Although this is an intelligent idea, cast members struggled with the balky sliding doors. The stage design also has a predelection for columns, from the plinth in Act I to the mirrored jewel-box cabinet in Act II, adorned with a gilt sculpture of Geronte himself. The final wasteland in "Louisiana" inexplicably features the broken ruin of the jewel box. Perhaps Manon perished wandering in an early American landfill?

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