Arts & Events

Rafael Davila Sings Des Grieux in the Final Performance of Puccini’s MANON LESCAUT

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 29, 2019 - 04:39:00 PM

On Tuesday, November 26, Puerto Rican tenor Rafael Davila made his San Francisco Opera debut singing for one night only the role of the Chevalier Des Grieux in Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. In this season’s earlier performances of this opera, Des Grieux was sung by Brian Jagde. Singing the role of Manon in all six performances this season was Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian, hailed by many as the leading Puccini soprano of our time. My review of the opening night performance of this Manon Lescaut appeared in these pages on November 9. Always interested in discovering new singers, I returned to the War Memorial Opera House on November 26 to hear Rafael Davila make his local debut. He did not disappoint. 

Rafael Davila had already sung the role of Des Grieux in Spain at Opera de Valencia and at Barcelona’s famed Gran Teatro del Liceu. In 2017 Davila made an unexpected but critically acclaimed debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, stepping in to replace the ailing lead tenor in the role of Don José in Carmen. In his debut performance here as Des Grieux, Rafael Davila got off to an auspicious start owing to the fact that Puccini gave Des Grieux not one but two good arias to sing right away in Act I. The first, “tra voi, belle” is sung to the young women flirting with the young men at the coach station in Amiens. The second aria, “Donna non vidi mai similie a questa”/“Never did I see such a woman as this,” is sung in honor of the newly arrived Manon, who has barely stepped off her coach from Arras when she encounters the already enraptured young Chevalier Des Grieux, who has fallen in love with her at first sight. What I liked about Rafael Davila’s voice, initially, was its timbre, a true tenor timbre. (Unlike the baritonal timbre of Brian Jagde, who sang the first five performances of this season’s Manon Lescaut.) My only reservation about Davila’s singing in Act I was a hint of coarseness in the voice. Later, this disappeared. 

In my review of this season’s first performance of Manon Lescaut, I noted a slight tentativeness in Lianna Haroutounian’s early singing in Act I. At the time, I attributed it perhaps to first night nerves in a new role debut. However, on hearing Lianna Haroutounian a second time in this role, I realise that the tentativeness is not her responsibility, it is Puccini’s! The composer simply doesn’t give Manon any music in Act I she can really sink her teeth into. 

Even her first conversation with Des Grieux is all one-sided on his part. Manon is just an object Dea Grieux finds extraordinarily attractive, a woman onto whom he can project all his fantasies and desires about women. Indeed, in Oliver Tambosi’s staging of this production’s Act I, Manon and Des Grieux almost never look into each other’s eyes. Even when Des Grieux impulsively declares his love for Manon, he stands slightly behind her, staring off into space at the audience, while Manon, for her part, also sits staring into space at the audience. It’s as if this staging of Manon Lescaut wants to undercut the love-at-first-sight story right from the beginning, seeing it as a projection on the parts of both Des Grieux and Manon. Needless to say, that is a very cynical, Italianate view of the story recounted in the Abbé Prévost’s immensely popular 1731 French novel Manon Lescaut. Whereas the French celebrated this depiction of love-at-first-sight as the quintessence of young love , Puccini and his Italian librettists (at least five, maybe seven) seem to debunk it from the outset. What a pity! 

I also noted, in my November 9 review of this production’s first performance, my utter horror at Puccini’s decision to open Act II not in the happy but impoverished love nest of Des Grieux and Manon in Paris, but instead in the opulent Parisian manor house of the wealthy old roué Geronte, who has somehow, by means never made clear, sequestered Manon as his kept woman. Missing out, once again, on an occasion to celebrate young love, Puccini and his librettists (at least five and perhaps seven) just cynically place all the guilt on Manon for seeming to have preferred the luxury offered by Geronte to the impoverished true love she experienced with Des Grieux. 

Just how empty, however, is her new life with Geronte, is amply, perhaps all too amply, made clear at the beginning of Puccini’s Act II. First, there’s the acting out of a vapid madrigal composed by Geronte in honor of Manon. Then there’s a tedious dancing lesson in which Manon graciously performs a minuet with Geronte as her partner. I find this all a bit much. It’s as if Puccini and his Italian librettists can’t let go of their distorted view of this story, so they pile up scene after scene that undercuts everything, not only the young love of Des Grieux and Manon but also, a far easier target, the hypocritical relationship between Manon and the aging Geronte. 

When in Act II Des Grieux suddenly bursts unexpectedly into Manon’s bedroom in Geronte’s manor house, the music catches fire. In this performance, as in the opening night performance with Brian Jagde, suddenly everything becomes enflamed with passion. Manon declares her love for Des Grieux. At first, he hesitates. However, in thrall to her beauty, he melts and forgives Manon. They embrace passionately and sing a gorgeous duet. But Geronte arrives unexpectedly to catch the young lovers in their passionate embrace. He is furious. Manon goads him by holding up a mirror in front of him, then asking him to look at herself and Des Grieux in a loving embrace. Geronte seems to accept his fate; but this is only a dissembling on his part. He exits, vowing they will hear again from him, and soon. Sure enough, the forces of law and order soon arrive to arrest Manon as a loose woman. Now Geronte vindictively holds a mirror up to the incarcerated Manon. 

The rest of this story you know, at least if you’ve seen Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and perhaps read my November 8 review of this production’s first performance. Manon is transported to Le Havre, where she and other ‘fallen women’ await deportation to Louisiana. Des Grieux begs to be allowed on board to accompany Manon. He is taken aboard as cabin boy. Act IV is notoriously set in “a desert in Louisiana,” where an ailing and exhausted Manon and a desperate Des Grieux wander in a vain search for a safe haven or even a sign of life. With almost her dying breath, Manon sings the pathetically beautiful aria, “Sola, perduta, abbandonata,” gorgeously sung here by Lianna Haroutounian. Then Manon expires in the arms of Des Grieux. 

Let me say, in closing, that as Des Grieux Rafael Davila was even more impressive in Acts II, III, and IV than I found him to be in Act I. Let’s hope we hear him again soon in San Francisco.