Karita Mattila (Manon Lescaut) and Misha Didyk (Chevalier des Grieux)
Photo by Terrence McCarthy
by Giacomo Puccini
San Francisco Opera
November 19-December 10, 2006
War Memorial Opera House
Manon Lescaut: Karita Mattila
Des Grieux: Misha Didyk
Lescaut: John Hancock
Geronte: Eric Halfvarson
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Stage Director: Olivier Tambosi*
Production Designer: Frank Philipp Schlössmann*
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
*San Francisco Opera debut
Time was when a beautiful gold-digger was more likely to be deported to the colonies than chased by paparazzi and welcomed at the best dinner parties. Obviously, times have changed. But the story of “Manon Lescaut” lives on, not so much as the cautionary tale originally penned by the moralizing Abbe Prevost in the 18th Century, but as a pair of beautiful and popular operas, one, “Manon” by Jules Massenet and the other, Giacomo Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.”
The trick for 21st Century audiences is to swallow the story of the love of an innocent-girl-turned-courtesan for a devoted, but penniless student. It’s not always smooth sailing, no matter how the music buoys it up. Puccini’s libretto, written some years after the Massenet (with the help of no fewer than five authors) jumps all over the place, ending up in a notorious geographical gaffe, a desert outside of New Orleans. It takes fine acting, as well as singing to bring this tale to anything resembling life and the current San Francisco Opera production, playing at the War Memorial Opera House through Dec. 10 has both – and then some.
We are used to hearing Karita Mattila in serious, heavy roles: “Jenufa,” “Katya Kabanova” and Beethoven’s Leonora in “Fidelio.” Her “Salome,” with full strip tease, was the talk of last year’s Met season. Here, the Finnish superstar shows her stuff in the Italian repertoire. She can be coquettish, imperious and downright bratty but, when it comes time to die in that Louisiana desert, her finely honed acting skills bring us almost to tears. The voice, it goes without saying, is divine. She is well-matched with Misha Didyk as Des Grieux. The Ukrainian tenor has previously appeared in San Francisco’s “The Queen of Spades” and “Maid of Orleans” but “Manon Lescaut” might well be his local breakthrough role. One expects great things from Mattila – and gets them – but her Chevalier was the surprise of the show. Another surprise was young Adler Fellow Sean Panikkar who opened the opera with a strong cameo as the student Edmondo. This guy is another one to watch.
Stalwart Wagnerian Eric Halvarson sang well as the rich, lecherous old man who first seduces, then betrays Manon. John Hancock was strong and imposing as the perpetually scheming brother, Lescaut. The orchestra, under music director Donald Runnicles, who becomes more and more of a treasure as his San Francisco tenure winds to a close, delivered Puccini’s lush melodies meticulously, never so beautifully as in the famed Intermezzo between Acts Three and Four. The orchestra actually made you feel Manon’s regret, longing and pain as she languishes in prison, awaiting the ship that will take her to exile.
Musicologists have made much of the fact that this, Puccini’s third operatic outing, is the first to demonstrate what would become his distinctive style. And, indeed, you can hear hints of melodies that will later be expanded in “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly” in the score. As well as some downright Wagnerian passages, as Puccini – at the urging of his mentor-publisher – had put in his time at Bayreuth. Yes, it’s an early work. Yes, it’s a little patchy on the plot side. But when Karita Mattila – or any other soprano worth her salt – sings her dying plaint, “Sola, perduta, abandonnata,” you remember why this composer may be the most beloved by audiences of all.
– Suzanne Weiss