Arts & Events

New: Puccini’s Skewed View of the Quintessentially French MANON LESCAUT

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday January 17, 2019 - 10:23:00 AM

Berkeley Chamber Opera offered two performances of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut Friday and Sunday, January 11 and 13, at Berkeley’s Hillside Club. Soprano Eliza O’Malley, founder and artistic director of Berkeley Chamber Opera, sang the title role on Friday in spite of suffering from early symptoms of laryngitis. However, for the Sunday performance Ms. O’Malley found an imaginative solution to her vocal issues. She lip-synced the role onstage while Russian soprano Olga Chernisheva sang the role from the orchestra pit. Strange to say, it worked fine.  

The problem remains, however, that Puccini and his Italian librettists (all seven of them) simply had little or no appreciation of why the character of Manon Lescaut, the lead character in the popular 18th century novel of the same name by L’Abbé Prévost, touched the hearts of so many French citizens, male and female alike. In composing Manon Lescaut, Puccini had to work in the face of the already enormously popular opera on the same subject by French composer Jules Massenet, whose Manon preceded Puccini’s by eight years. In Massenet’s Manon, our first glimpse of Manon is of a lively, impressionable young girl who can hardly speak, so breathlessly excited is she by her first trip away from home, even if that trip is taking her against her will to life in a convent. At a stopover in Amiens, however, Manon meets the dashing young student, Chevalier Des Grieux, and for both of these youngsters it’s pretty much love at first sight. However, in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Des Grieux may fall for Manon at first sight, but Manon doesn’t seem to reciprocate, and it’s only when she is informed that Geronte, an elderly Parisian roué who has shared her coach thus far has plans to abduct her and make her his mistress, that Manon decides she’d rather take her chances with young Des Grieux.  

To make matters worse, much worse, whereas Massenet in Act II gives us a most poignant glimpse of the happy and simple love life of Manon and Des Grieux in Paris in spite of their impoverished finances, Puccini gives us nothing of the sort. Instead, Puccini skips that all-important period of Manon’s life entirely and opens Act II with Manon now ensconced in the elegant Parisian palace of that same elderly roué who sought to abduct her in Amiens. How she came to abandon Des Grieux and take up with Geronte de Ravoir is never made clear, though Puccini’s libretto more than suggests that somehow the lure of opulence won out over the simple joys of true love. Thus, the sympathies we have for Massenet’s Manon are simply not there for Puccini’s character, who seems calculating from the outset, both in her initial decision to go off with Des Grieux and with her subsequent decision to abandon Des Grieux in favor of a lavish life as Geronte’s kept woman.  

Vocally, Olga Chernisheva, who sang many roles for the Bolshoi Opera before emigrating to the USA, offered a sumptuous soprano with a huge range. Her lower register was in fine form, and even her upper register was impressive in spite of several shrill high notes at the very top of her range. In the role of Des Grieux local tenor Alex Boyer gave a robust performance. His “Donna, non vidi mai” (“Never was such a woman seen”) was a highlight of the opera. Dramatically, however, I question the wisdom behind director Lisa Houston’s decision to have Alex Boyer’s Des Grieux sing his declaration of love for Manon not to her but to the audience, with his back to Manon. To me, this made no sense! As Lescaut, Manon’s brother, baritone Daniel Cilli made the most of a rather conniving, sleazy and self-aggrandizing character. In the role of Geronte, William Weidner was suitably obnoxious. J.T. Williams sang the bass-baritone role of the Innkeeper as well as the Sergeant. Alexander Taite was a dandyish dancing master and a limping lamplighter. Ellen Yeung was soloist in the madrigal group. Veteran conductor Jonathan Khuner led the chamber orchestra in a robust interpretation of Puccini’s score. Especially beautiful was the instrumental prelude to Act III. Finally, shouts of Brava! go to Eliza O’Malley for her courageous decision to act the part of Manon onstage while lip-synching to the singing of the offstage Olga Chernisheva. So convincing was Eliza O’Malley’s performance that she put Milli Vanilli to shame.