“Manon Lescaut” proves a Puccini bridge too far for Opera Festival of Chicago

Fri Jun 28, 2024 at 1:19 pm

By John von Rhein

Maria Natale in the title role and Anthony Reed as Geronte in Opera Festival of Chicago’s production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. Photo: A Deran

Over the last few years the Opera Festival of Chicago has done a valuable service to area opera-goers in rescuing worthwhile rarities of the Italian repertory from local neglect. By doing so, the company has helped to fill Chicago’s long operatic dry spell during the summer months.

Unfortunately ambition outstripped means with the musically worthy but dramatically tame production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut that opened the Opera Festival’s fourth season Thursday evening. The show plays through Sunday, with alternating principals, at Cahn Auditorium in Evanston.

If the troupe wanted to celebrate the composer’s centennial in a really meaningful way, how about doing so with less-familiar Puccini better suited to its modest resources, such as La Rondine or Il Trittico?

To its credit, the Opera Festival is fielding two big-voiced young singers as the romantic leads, enfolding them in robust orchestral playing under the energetic and idiomatic baton of music director Emanuele Andrizzi. 

That’s about it in the virtues department. Almost everything else is left as high and dry as the improbable “Louisiana plains” on which Puccini’s hapless heroine breathes her last.

Bringing the tragic heroine of Abbé Prevost’s novel to life on the operatic stagewas a make-or-break challengefor the young Puccini, whose previous opera, Edgar, had been a potentially career-ruining flop. It could not have helped that Jules Massenet’s setting of the same story, Manon, had gained considerable allegiance from critics and public less than a decade before the 1893 premiere of Manon Lescaut in Turin.

But succeed it did, giving the young composer the major turn-around he needed, the opera quickly gaining acceptance in Italy and elsewhere. Overflowing with melody, supremely assured in its handling of Italian vocal style, deft in its dramatic pacing and modern use of the orchestra, Manon Lescaut had critics pronouncing Puccini the rightful heir to the mantle of Verdi, whose final opera, Falstaff, had premiered only eight days earlier at Milan’s La Scala.

Manon was the first of the lovely but vulnerable heroines on whom Puccini would lavish so much artistic love in his later operas.The narrative is built around the heroine’s fatal addiction to the good things of the world, a penchant that would destroy her and ruin the life of her lover, the Chevalier Des Grieux.

Matthew White as the Chevalier des Grieux and Maria Natale as Manon in Manon Lescaut. Photo: A. Deran

Both characters are given much strenuous vocal lifting in the course of the four acts when they also are charged with creating believable characters an audience will readily take to its heart.

Small wonder, then, that even Lyric Opera has not ventured Puccini’s third opera in 19 long years. How do you cast the piece well in an era when singers of the stature of Licia Albanese, Renata Tebaldi, Jussi Bjoerling, Giuseppe di Stefano and Robert Merrill no longer walk the Earth? And the disjointed narrative poses severe dramatic and scenic challenges for any production team. 

The problems here began with the venue itself. The Cahn Auditorium stage is simply too shallow to accommodate the bustling crowd scenes of Act 1 without confusion, and the dry acoustic hardened Puccini’s lush sonorities, bleaching the textures of their shimmering beauty. There also were some odd balances between pit and stage on opening night, when overbearing brass and percussion leapt out of the texture disconcertingly. 

Sets, decor and lighting were kept simple for obvious budgetary reasons, but surely the Opera Festival’s general director Sasha Gerritson (doubling here as the traffic-cop stage director) and her production team could have done better than these cheapish costumes, which mixed vaguely late-19th century styles and modern dress so indiscriminately that it was impossible to tell precisely in which era the tragedy was supposed to be taking place. Also, having a dance master instructing Manon in a minuet just looked silly in this temporally vague updating.

At least Andrizzi proved himself fully at home in the big Puccini manner, supporting his singers and chorus urgently, building exciting climaxes without sacrificing the long line. A professional pit band that included members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra gave him their considerable all.  

Maria Natale and Matthew White were the tragic lovers. She wielded a full, firm, flowing soprano that occasionally hardened at the top, rising to her finest singing of the evening in the dying Manon’s aria “Sola, perduta, abandonata.” The final act, indeed, found both singers at their best, fully into their characters at last, affecting in their final embrace.

But neither characterization had much to do with Manon Lescaut.

Natale’s heroine was too self-possessed, too worldly, for the charming, demure and hesitant 18-year-old country girl whom Des Grieux rescued from her elderly admirer Geronte early in the action. The pony-tailed White belted out his arias with clarion strength and intensity; he sang his full-throated best in Des Grieux’s Act 3 aria in which the hero begged to be deported to America along with his beloved. Even so, there was scant dynamic nuance in his vocalism, and little in the way of tender emotional connection between the leads.

Both Eric Dubin, as Manon’s opportunistic brother Lescaut, and Anthony Reed, as her malicious sugar-daddy Geronte, sang capably but were miscast. The baritone cynically slouched about the stage, cigarette dangling from his lips. The bass looked and sounded far too young to be convincing as an aged roué. Reuben Lillie as Edmondo led the choral hymn to youth and feminine beauty with a sweet lyric tenor.

In what has become common practice in these budget-conscious times, audience members had to scan a QR code in their program leaflets to find a plot synopsis, biographies and other information.    

Manon Lescaut will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Opera Festival of Chicago will conclude its season with a pairing of Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero and Menotti’s The Medium, July 11 and 14 at the Athenaeum Theater. operafestivalchicago.org

Photo: A Deran

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