Through March 23
Kennedy Center Opera House
2700 F St., NW
Opera can be an exquisite combination of art forms when done well — lush instrumentals combine with soaring vocals and engaging theatricality to create a passionate and transformative evening. That’s why the opening night of Washington National Opera’s “Manon Lescaut” was so teeth-grindingly frustrating. It polluted a sumptuous opera with high school-level missteps in directing, performance and conducting.
Rightfully lauded soprano Patricia Racette (a lesbian) made her role debut as Manon, and as expected she hit it out of the park. Her ability to convey pathos, both vocally and as an actress, lifted the character out of her two-dimensionality, suggesting a true conflict between Manon’s desire for real love and her gold-digging tendencies. At opera’s end, when Racette managed as she had throughout the evening to keep us spellbound by her vocal line and dramatic heft, the young girl’s demise became a heartbreaking cautionary tale about living for anything other than love.
Too bad, then, that this remarkable artist had to battle an orchestra run amok. Puccini’s score is rife with sweeping gestures of romantic tragedy and under the baton of Philippe Auguin, the orchestra certainly, but not always wisely, matched the mood. The players sounded so intoxicated with the score that, at times, they sawed away at it drunkenly, often drowning out the principles. The duet between Manon and her lover Des Grieux, Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev, leaned perilously close to becoming a shouting match.
Chanev was clearly hired for his money notes, the bread-and-butter of any tenor, and here he delivered in spades. His passionately ringing high note and legato in the act three aria, “No! Pazzo son! Guardate,” would crack the heart of the most hardened opera aficionado, yet, high notes only do not a good tenor make. Often employing vocal parlor tricks to cover a lack of dynamic subtlety, the large-voiced Chanev stumbled clumsily through much of Puccini’s lyric writing. (Perhaps he should have taken phrasing cues from Raúl Melo’s stylistically charming Edmondo.)
This “Manon Lescaut,” a revival of the 2007 production, was created and directed by gay opera director John Pascoe, who also helmed Washington National Opera’s “Don Giovanni,” seen earlier this season, and 2008’s dynamic “Lucrezia Borgia.”
Some brilliant and unexpected design choices — a large bust-topped pillar transformed into a human-sized jewel box for Manon and broken palace pieces as the heroine’s final resting place — highlighted the shallow artifice of 18th-century Paris juxtaposed with the lonely end we all crawl toward.
The grand desolation of Manon, who goes from dancing in the glittering salons of Paris to dying on a windswept plain in America, is one hair’s breadth away from melodrama, and some of Pascoe’s blocking and set choices only highlighted this unfortunate tendency. Using a large scrolled page as a screen for projecting quotes from the original Manon story written in the 17th-century by Abbé Prévost, this page regularly split in two, framing the stage and suggesting a grand fairy tale. At times, the halves would draw closer together, unnecessarily highlighting a lead character’s aria in a ham-handed attempt to let the audience know this moment was important — as if the writing and performance alone couldn’t do that.
Hackneyed operatic staging threatened to turn the piece into a silent film. Des Grieux and Manon often didn’t sing to each other at all in moments of high passion, and sometimes they weren’t even near one another. During her death scene, the heroine was draped languidly in a sepulchral broken pillar, only then to sing about being in her tomb. Yeah. We got that, already.
Perhaps in the relentless march to make opera easily accessible, the production team sacrificed the delicacy and infinite emotional variations that reflect real life. Manon’s story is not so absurd in an era when people will just as easily sell their soul for a shot on reality TV as they would sell out true love for a chance to wear jewel-encrusted gowns.