The page of a giant book filled the proscenium of the Kennedy Center Opera House and slid open, at the start of each scene, to reveal the events it was narrating. Cliche? Absolutely, but at least it had a point.
Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” which the Washington National Opera brought back Saturday night in a John Pascoe production from 2004, is based on a novel by Abbe Prevost that was popular and scandalous in its day (and that inspired another familiar opera, Jules Massenet’s “Manon”). Puccini and his librettists had to chop down the book ruthlessly to get it on stage, and the snippets of text on Pascoe’s giant page provided some connections in a plot that requires a lot of suspension of disbelief.
It wasn’t a great staging — the 18th-century settings and costumes were fairly anodyne — and it wasn’t a great performance. But it did offer some things to like.
Above all, there was the score. “Manon Lescaut” is Puccini’s first real masterpiece, bubbling and fizzing with little snippets of musical ideas that keep shooting out and then returning with the puppylike eagerness of the work’s endearing, maddening, elusive heroine. Manon is a beautiful young girl who has little common sense and who alternately strings along and dumps both her handsome young lover and her wealthy old one. She ends up dying on “a vast plain near New Orleans” of unspecified causes. (See “suspension of disbelief,” above.)
Manon’s younger lover, the Chevalier des Grieux, gets music that’s arguably even more romantic and stirring than hers: “Donna, non vidi mai” (I never saw anyone like you) is the kind of aria on which daydreams are built. It’s a shame that Pascoe kept closing his giant book page and cutting the singers off from the action for their big arias — a misinterpretation, in my book, of the notion of “showstopping.”
This score got uneven treatment, though, from the WNO’s stalwart music director, Philippe Auguin. When he was good, he was really, really good, leading a crashing wave of sound to embody the passion in the duet at the end of Act I (although overpowering the singers) before pulling back into a taut, controlled passage of bell-like notes. Sometimes, however, he was merely indifferent.
There were coordination issues, particularly at the start of the opera, when the lackluster chorus seemed to be singing from several scores, and at the start of Manon’s first showpiece aria, “In quelle trine morbide,” when Patricia Racette, as Manon, seemed not to be able to tell where to come in. Still, the good outweighed the bad; Auguin at his best can access this music’s shape and power as not every conductor can. And the performance picked up steam as the evening went on.
The biggest story was Racette, a significant American soprano who’s upping the ante into bigger repertoire and who took on this role for the first time. Racette’s lyrical, fresh voice has grown steadily warmer and fuller over time, and she is certainly making “Tosca” (which she sang here in 2011) her own. Manon isn’t yet quite as good a fit. She certainly sings it well, and she has a combination of vulnerability and toughness that could work well for the character. But one sensed Saturday that she is still working her way into the part. She didn’t disappoint, by any means, but it should be worth going back later in the run (the opera continues through March 23) and hearing how she continues to internalize it.
The WNO had to scramble a bit for a tenor after Fabio Armiliato, who was scheduled to sing Des Grieux, was ordered by his doctor to take full vocal rest through March. His replacement was a relatively unknown young Bulgarian named Kamen Chanev. At the start of the evening, I was ready to write him off as one more aspirant who was singing repertory too heavy for him without enough vocal support, but I was wrong. He got progressively more comfortable and more heroic, until in the last act, he offered some of the strongest singing of the night.
Raul Melo, by contrast, represented luxury casting in the small role of Edmondo. The role was originally assigned to Yuri Gorodetski — a member of the Domingo-Cafritz young-artist program — but he is now singing only one performance. Given the WNO’s past casting history, it was striking that no other Domingo-Cafritz artists appeared at all, even in bit parts like the madrigal singers serenading Manon in her chambers in Geronte’s house, led by Daniela Mack, or the captain of the ship taking Manon to America, resonantly sung by Peter Cantrell.
It’s a big week for the WNO: This Saturday sees the opening of “Norma,” and on Tuesday comes the announcement of next season’s programming. The company’s new artistic director, Francesca Zambello, was in the house Saturday night, a visible reminder that a new wind is blowing.
This “Manon Lescaut” was planned before her arrival, so it can’t be taken as a sign of things to come. But it did show that the WNO, if it isn’t doing anything earth-shattering, is at least keeping its head above water.