For the first time in twenty-five years, the Opera Company of Philadelphia has mounted a production of Puccini’s first great opera, Manon Lescaut. The result was an inspired testament to thoughtful direction by Michael Cavanagh, gorgeous sets and costumes by John Pascoe, and several winning performances.
Manon Lescaut tells the story of a young girl destined for the convent when the noble Chevalier Des Grieux first lays eyes on her. Though the two are smitten with each other, Manon cannot escape the scars of an upbringing of privation. Easily seduced by wealth and jewels, she abandons Des Grieux to be kept by another man until she finally reunites with her true love shortly before dying.
Manon Lescaut was director Cavanagh’s first production with OCP, and with any luck, not his last. Cavanagh was clearly taken with the adventures of the Chevalier Des Grieux penned by Abbé Prévost, the same story captivating many other creative imaginations besides Puccini's—Massenet and Auber among them. This was obvious in the inclusion of enlarged pages of the book into the set at significant intervals—to open the opera and before the last act, most notably. This device allowed the audience to connect with Prévost’s tale in the same way that Puccini himself might have done. It was refreshing to witness a directorial vision that served the spirit and intent of the original work for a change.
Though it was a traditional Manon Lescaut set in the second half of the eighteenth century, it was hardly lackluster. I can’t remember seeing a grander set on stage at the Philadelphia Academy of Music that was at the same time versatile and flexible. Sliding pieces opened or narrowed like oversized lens apertures to create larger or smaller settings as the scenes demanded—an ingenious design, particularly at the end, where it appeared to seal off Manon from the arms of Des Grieux and the world of the living. Pascoe costumed a huge cast, in period—from lace ascots and handkerchiefs to green velvet suits with knickers to Manon’s brocade robe and gilded gowns—and the total effect was marvelous.
One might wonder at this juncture why OCP waited 25 years to restage Manon Lescaut. Maybe because it is an impossibly difficult opera to sing, particularly for Des Grieux. It’s also unbelievably challenging for any performer to convey and sing convincingly all the personalities and styles demanded of the role of Manon. She is alternately coquettish, pampered, trapped, remorseful, accused and incarcerated, and broken. OCP lost the soprano slated to sing the role, so a performer only beginning her professional journey was tasked to step in and learn the show in one month.
Michelle Johnson, a fourth-year resident artist at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, started off tentatively but grew into the performance as Manon became more conflicted and downtrodden, to finish triumphantly. Not only did she have plenty of voice left for the fourth act, it was also her best act vocally—strong, textured, dramatic. Johnson was utterly convincing in the act that chronicles her character’s death, her performance a tour de force. Taking on the title role was an amazing journey at this stage of Johnson’s career. Everyone in the audience was treated to an artistic feat of unparalleled significance for a rising opera star.
Ironically, though Manon Lescaut is named for the woman, it is a man’s show to own. And make no mistake, Brazilian tenor Thiago Arancam owned the role of Des Grieux, which is arguably the most difficult tenor role Puccini ever wrote. Beginning with “Donna non vidi mai,” his arias soared with power and emotional intensity, his top notes ringing throughout the Academy. Arancam gets my vote for best of show, and I hope I have the good fortune to see him perform again soon.
The only genuine disappointment of the afternoon was that the orchestra led by conductor Corrado Rovaris was at times too loud, especially in the beginning. For example, as Edmondo, tenor Cody Austin could barely be heard, and he has a strong voice. Michelle Johnson was also overpowered by the orchestra in Act I. The only entities to “beat the band” were the talented opera chorus and Arancam, but should they have to? Overly loud orchestras are utterly frustrating and wearying, for the audience and also for the singers straining to be heard. It is unfathomable that a problem which can potentially sabotage a show isn't corrected in rehearsal.
Following a standing ovation which began with Arancam’s bows, on the way out, a woman sighed in awe of the opera that had put Puccini on the map and said, “Puccini gets an A.” And for their worthy effort with a Puccini masterwork, the Opera Company of Philadelphia gets an A minus.