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Early Puccini Masterpiece Returns to the Stage in an Evocative New Production

The 1893 opera “Manon Lescaut” was the third created by Giacomo Puccini, but it was the first that displayed the full range of his budding mastery of the art form. Even if the piece lacks some of the refinement of Puccini’s later classics, it includes music strongly informed by the great composers of the past, even Richard Wagner, but also gives indications of how his characteristic style would develop in subsequent operas. The orchestra, conducted with great finesse on this occasion by Maestro Fabio Luisi, plays a major role in telling the story, and the score is a clear precursor of the great cinematic soundtracks of the next century. For these reasons, it was exciting to see the work presented in a new production at the Metropolitan Opera last Friday night.

Based on the 1731 novel “L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut” by the Abbé Prévost, the opera depicts the struggles of the title heroine as she must choose between with her love for a poor-but-ardent student, Renault des Grieux and her ambitions for wealth and notoriety. Over the course of the evening, Manon goes from simple girl headed for a convent to a glamorous Parisian socialite, and ultimately her dual desires clash with tragic consequences. It is a story that continues to surprise at every turn and depicts, with bold color, the passion and fervor of young love.

This new staging of “Manon Lescaut” marked the fourth production by British director Sir Richard Eyre, who updated the setting to France during the German occupation during World War II. With a drab but evocative set by Rob Howell and fetching period costumes by Fotini Dimou, the production presents many beautiful images, but feels more like a string of attractive poses than an organic narrative. Hopefully, as the performers gain greater comfort with the concept, their characterizations will mature, and subsequent outings will be far more cohesive.

Soprano Kristine Opolais is becoming a go-to interpreter of Puccini’s music at the Met, having sung three of the composer’s heroines there in recent seasons. As Manon, Opolais brought a sultry, lyrical timbre, but her vocal performance was inconsistent at times. While the role’s stunning arias were polished and moving, moments between the showstoppers were given less care, and her top notes did not always sound secure. Still, Opolais cuts a riveting figure onstage, and she skillfully maneuvered through her character’s mercurial mood shifts.

Making headlines, famed tenor Roberto Alagna stepped in to sing the role of des Grieux only a few weeks before the opening, replacing an ailing colleague. After Friday’s performance, though, it was clear that the decision was motivated more to boost ticket sales than to present the best casting choice. Alagna is undeniably past his vocal prime, and the role proved too taxing for his fading sound. Early on the tenor sang with bright ardor, but in the final two acts, his singing became increasingly labored and high notes were noticeably under pitch.

Both Massimo Cavaletti as Manon’s brother Lescaut and Brindley Sherratt as the scheming nobleman Geronte sang with robust baritones, and special note should be made of tenor Zach Borichevsky, who made his debut as the student Edmondo with youthful energy and warm sound.

The score is the hero of “Manon Lescaut” as it is replete with lush melodies and guides the listener through the plot’s many twists and turns. Columbia students enamored with Puccini’s later, more popular works should savor this opportunity to see his first masterpiece despite some theatrical and vocal inconsistencies in this production.

Performances of “Manon Lescaut” run through March 11. The March 5 matinee performance will be broadcast in cinemas and on radio worldwide. More information can be found online at metopera.org.

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