On Saturday night the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts was packed with ardent opera lovers who came to the Washington National Opera to enjoy one of Puccini’s most heartbreaking love stories, Manon Lescaut.

Patricia Racette as Manon Lescaut and Kamen Chanev as Chevalier des Grieux © Scott Suchman for WNO
Patricia Racette as Manon Lescaut and Kamen Chanev as Chevalier des Grieux
© Scott Suchman for WNO

It is hardly arguable that staging of this story – the tale of a thoughtless courtesan who abandons her young lover for the dubious comforts of wealthy life with her old protector, and does not reunite with her beloved until she is exiled to America where shortly after she finds her death – calls for outstanding set and costume designs, convincing acting, and strong vocal artists capable of conveying the emotional depth and intense beauty of Puccini’s music.

The revival of John Pascoe’s production that premièred at the Washington National Opera back in 2007 did not disappoint. Set in Amiens and later in Paris right before the French Revolution, Pascoe’s stylish creation boasted everything a compelling traditional opera production can offer. Attractive detailed sets and sumptuous period costumes, towering powdered wigs and heavily rouged faces, hilarious dancing scenes and pompous serenading were the production’s major beauties, to name just a few. Yet it was thanks to the dynamic team of well-matched artists that the production became a real hit.

Combining utmost musicality with excellent acting in his house debut as Lescaut, Manon’s cynical brother, Italian baritone Giorgio Caoduro boasted accurate vocalism, refined diction and the charisma of a true Puccinian baddie in his vibrant account of “Sei splendida e luciente”, which he dispatched with flair and authority.

Patricia Racette’s laser-clear voice, powerful high notes and impeccable breath control were most impressive in her rendition of the famous gavotte that her Manon sang while standing in a grand mirrored walk-in jewelry closet. As the opera progressed and Manon’s misfortunes transformed her into a more mature woman, Racette’s tone gained warmth and gleaming quality, showing a softer, wiser side of her heroine. Even though one wished Racette would add more passion to the dramatic characterization of her heroine, overall, this Manon was attractive and vocally satisfying.

The biggest triumph of the evening belonged to Manon’s doomed lover, Chevalier des Grieux, sung by the relatively unknown Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev. Even though his voice was barely audible at the very beginning of the opera, overpowered by the WNO orchestra (directed by Philip Auguine), the artist quickly gained control of his sound and sang himself into ringing form, showing off a lovely voice of almost instrumental quality. Making the most of the vocal opportunities provided by Puccini’s score, the artist allowed us to witness the emotional journey of his character, from a witty young writer used to keeping love firmly at bay to a deeply feeling monogamous man, capable of utmost devotion and self-sacrifice.

Sung with exquisitely dark undertones in the low register, Chanev’s heartbreaking aria “Pazzo son!” summoned from the very depths of the soul. The defining moment of the night, it showcased the artist’s ability to explore the bitterness of a vulnerable human being facing the inevitable grief of loss, fear and pain. It was thanks to Chanev’s genuinely deep and heartfelt performance that Pascoe’s production became a definite must-see event of the season.

Whether you feel like shedding a tear over the story of the star-crossed lovers, or simply want to enjoy a slightly old-fashioned night at the opera, hurry to the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts to immerse yourselves in the passion of Puccini’s music and the abundantly emotional world of his opera Manon Lescaut.

***11