The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra chose Puccini’s Manon Lescaut as this year’s Opera in Concert, a series that has been filled with many musical highlights over the last several years. Puccini’s third opera is based on an 18th-century novel by Abbé Prevost about the young Manon veering between her love for Des Grieux and her love of luxury before finally ending up dead in the improbable-sounding deserts of Louisiana. Puccini’s score has many thrilling moments, here taken up by a fascinating if uneven cast of singers.

In the title-role, Serena Farnocchia showed off a lovely, vibrant lyric soprano voice that was probably a size or two too small for the role. When there was less orchestral force to contend with, she produced a beautiful liquid tone (and some flashy coloratura in the dance lesson scene) but in the heavier moments her voice lost steadiness. However, her clear diction, very specific attention to the text, and natural sense of how Puccini's music should be phrased more than made up for these issues. One could appreciate the value of having a native Italian speaker in such a role; one just had to listen to the different inflections in the repetitions of “non voglio morire” in the last act to hear Farnocchia’s mastery of handling a dramatic phrase. Additionally, she never shied away from utilising a large dynamic range, with the velvety pianissimo she employed being particularly attractive such as in the last moments of “In quelle trine morbide”. 

Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev was a late replacement for the originally schedule Massimo Giordano as Des Grieux. Interestingly, his strengths and faults were almost the exact opposite of Farnocchia’s. Chanev brought to the role a richness of tone that belied his lyric tenor origins and an easy ringing top. This was combined with an approach to Puccini’s music that was long on ardour but short on charm. As a result, the third and fourth acts were genuinely exciting, particularly the great “Pazzo son!” outburst as he begs to accompany Manon to Louisiana. There was real animal passion as he choked out the final line “Ah, ingrato non sarò!” But he lacked any real sense of how to turn a Puccinian phrase into something beguiling or magical – the first act arias remained a bit dull and earthbound. A lack of attention to the text early on meant that one hardly felt invested in Des Grieux’s story now matter how sterling the vocalism.

As Lescaut, Dalibor Jenis' rich tones and lively stage manner had one regretting that Puccini gave him so few opportunities to really shine vocally. Nevertheless, he made the little duet with his sister after “In quelle trine morbide” seem like a real event and the bluff but ultimately repentant personality came across perfectly. Another significant voice was that of Pelham Andrews in the role of Geronte; his is a round and warm bass that seems destined for major roles very soon. Andrews is much younger than the usual singer in this role; this might have been just about the only Manon Lescaut performance ever in which the Geronte seemed like a more attractive prospect than the Des Grieux! Other smaller roles were also ably taken, with Bianca Andrew in particular sounding like a future operatic star in the Madrigal.

The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra gave a sumptuous reading of the score, at times a little too sumptuous as the soloists threatened to be overwhelmed at key moments. This was particularly true during the parts where the singers were situated behind the orchestra. The Intermezzo was an undoubted highlight, the yearning initial phrases played with great conviction by the orchestra’s strings. Elsewhere the orchestra played with great virtuosity in the many quicksilver changes of mood that characterise Puccini’s score. Music Director Giordano Bellincampi was all fire and charisma in his conducting. This kept things moving in the rather rambling first act and was thrilling in the dramatic love duet. But there was an unfortunate refusal to linger in the more lyrical moments that while not fatal, denied Farnocchia in particular the ability to make even great emotional effect. All in all, while not a perfect performance, this Manon Lescaut was intriguing enough to whet one’s appetite for next year’s Opera in Concert installment.