Arts & Events

Lianna Haroutounian Lights Up Puccini’s Dark MANON LESCAUT

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday November 09, 2019 - 07:56:00 PM

Having quickly emerged as perhaps this era’s leading Puccini soprano, Lianna Haroutounian returns to San Francisco Opera by adding the role of Manon Lescaut to the list of Puccini heroines she has sung here, starting with Tosca in 2014 and Madama Butterfly in 2016. Ms. Haroutounian also sang here the role of Nedda in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in 2018. On Friday, November 8, Liana Haroutounian sang in the first of six performances of Manon Lescaut, the opera that gave Puccini his first success when it premiered in 1893. If Manon Lescaut has never achieved the audience adulation accorded Puccini’s La Bohème, Tosca, or Madama Butterfly, it nevertheless contains some excellent music. Manon’s Act II aria “In quelle trine morbide”/“In these soft laces” is considered by many one of the finest arias Puccini ever wrote. At the first performance this year of this San Francisco Opera production of Manon Lescaut, Liana Haroutounian not only sang this aria beautifully, she even conveyed the chilling effect experienced by Manon amidst all this luxury. Not that Manon doesn’t like luxury! But she also confides to her brother that she longs for the humble dwelling where she and Des Grieux knew true love.  

Interestingly, this is the only reference in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut to a scene that is unforgettable in Massenet’s Manon, which premiered nine years earlier than Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, also based on the popular 1731 French novel Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost. Massenet set his Act II in the impoverished love-nest in Paris where Manon has fled with her young lover the Chevalier des Grieux after their love-at-first-sight meeting in the coach station at Amiens. In Massenet’s opera, this scene depicts both the joy of young love and, at its conclusion, the pathos of the abrupt separation of the young lovers when Des Grieux is abducted by henchmen sent by his disapproving father. It is one of the great scenes in all opera.  

However, for god knows what reason, Puccini and his many librettists (how many is not certain, though there were at least five) decided to eliminate the love tryst and move directly from Amiens to the opulent Parisian manor house of the wealthy old rake Geronte de Revoir, who has somehow installed Manon as his kept woman. In any case, when in Act II of Puccini’s opera Des Grieux bursts unexpectedly into Manon’s bedroom to confront her for abandoning him, Puccini’s music bursts into flame. With the exclamation from Manon, Tu, tu, amore! Tu?”/“You, you, my love! You?” both the drama and the music catch fire.At first, Des Grieux, sung here by tenor Brian Jagde, reproaches Manon. However, overcome by her beauty and her protestations of love, Des Grieux melts; and the reunited lovers sing an impassioned duet, “Vieni! Colle tue braccia stringi Manon che t’ama”/“Come, love! In your arms enfold Manon who loves you.” Musically and dramatically, this is the highpoint of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut; and it was sung beautifully by Liana Haroutounian and Brian Jagde. If at other moments Brian Jagde’s baritonal tenor voice lacked an edge, here, in this impassioned scene, when he could sing at or near the top of his range, Jagde was excellent. As for Liana Haroutounian, she is always excellent, voluptuous in the lower register and scintillating in the high notes. My only reservation at this performance came at the very beginning when, for once, Haroutounian seemed a bit tentative, and her voice momentarily lacked its usual projection. However, she warmed up quickly, and for 99% of this Manon Lescaut Liana Haroutounian was her usual superlative self. 

At the close of Act II, Manon, who has wasted time collecting her jewellery before escaping he wrath of Geronte, is arrested and imprisoned at Geronte’s orders as a loose woman. When Act III opens, it is with an extraordinarily beautiful instrumental Intermezzo, always a highlight of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, performed exquisitely here by the orchestra led by Nicola Luisotti. Act III is set in Le Havre, where Manon awaits deportation to the then-French colony of Louisiana. Lescaut concocts a plan to rescue his sister for the faithful Des Grieux, who has followed his beloved Manon to Le Havre. But the plan fails; and Des Grieux can only beg the ship’s captain to be allowed on board in whatever capacity he might remain with Manon. He is taken on as Cabin Boy. Act IV takes place, somewhat notoriously, in “a desert in Louisiana.” It seems that, to Puccini and his Italian librettists, America could only be imagined as a desert, a totally sterile environment. Oh well. At least Act IV gives us Manon’s pathetic aria, “Sola, perduta, abbandonata,” sung gorgeously here by Liana Haroutounian, who dies a few moments later in the arms of her beloved Des Grieux.  

Former San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti returned to conduct this Manon Lescaut; and he led a taut performance. Chorus Director Ian Robertson led his minions effectively, especially, in the opening scene. Veteran bass-baritone Philip Skinner was an excellent Geronte; and tenor Christopher Oglesby opened the opera with a mocking attitude towards the young and inexperienced Des Grieux. Baritone Anthony Clark Evans was a conniving Lescaut, Manon’s brother, who see-saws back and forth between aiding Des Grieux and Geronte, wherever he perceives an advantage to himself. The staging by director Olivier Tambosi, after a production design by Frank Philipp Schlössmann, was, at best, ho hum. I found nothing new here, although, granted, it’s hard to find anything new in Puccini’s limited, or shall we say, Italianzied, version of this quintessentially French love story.  

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut continues until November 26, when for the final performance Brian Jagde will be replaced by Puerto Rican tenor Rafael Davila.