Dallas — Puccini’s 1893 opera, Manon Lescaut, opens at The Dallas Opera this weekend in semi-staged format conducted by Emmanuel Villaume and featuring a stellar cast that includes Kristin Lewis as Manon, Musa Ngqungwana as her father Lescaut, Andrea Silvestrelli as her husband Geronte and Gregory Kunde as her lover des Grieux. It is an epic tale of passion, love and tragedy. The action like the music is broad and sweeping. In the course of four acts, it drags its star-crossed lovers halfway around the world from an Inn in France to the deserts (?) outside of New Orleans.
Ironically, it is in the midst of his own difficult travels from Europe through the snowy Northeast that Gregory Kunde, the renowned tenor, is able to take a few minutes and talk about Puccini, operatic staging and his reputation as an Iron man of the operatic stage.
TheaterJones: Are you safely on your way to Dallas finally?
Gregory Kunde: Yes, I’m in Newark, waiting for my last flight. I was snowed in in Rochester last night. I’m looking forward to finally being able to settle in and keep my feet on the ground for a while.
It’s been a while since you last sang in Dallas.
Almost 17 years since my last visit there. In fact, I haven’t sung in the US very often either aside from a few concerts here. It has been seven or eight years since my last full opera performance there. I will have a lot of family and friends in the audience for these performances.
Manon Lescaut is a remarkable opera. How have you found performing the role of des Grieux?
It is a masterpiece! Until recently, I hadn’t sung much Puccini—the occasional Madame Butterfly or Tosca—so I didn’t really appreciate how brilliant. I think it is now my favorite Puccini (and one of my favorite roles). The opera is so complete and clear. It is so passionate and heartbreaking. It has every emotion on display. I’m glad that I was able to come to sing it at a point in my career where I feel like I have something to give to the role.
Des Grieux is one of the toughest tenor roles in opera. For one thing, there is no time off. In La bohème, Madame Butterfly, and some of the others, the tenor is off stage for entire acts or at least long periods of rest. But here, des Grieux is central to the action at all time. And it is very challenging vocally.
I’ve performed des Grieux in Barcelona last July, and then recently in Japan with the Rome Opera, along with Kristin [Lewis]. I’ve also been fortunate to sing with Kristin in Aida and Il Trovatore before, so it will be great to be performing with her again.
The Dallas performance will be not fully staged. We will be in costume and have some set pieces, but not the full operatic production. It will be unique, because we will need our singing and acting and our interaction as performers to bring forth a lot of the emotion.
Puccini takes his poor characters all over the world. He has them in a small village, then Paris, then at the docks of a penal transportation ship and finally deep in the desert. How does the music set the tone for all these settings?
Puccini is a master of scene painting. You can see it in his exotic locations like the settings of Turandot or Madame Butterfly. All the music sounds like the place where the action is occurring.
In Manon Lescaut, Puccini uses the music to set the tone of the action. The music can be light and courtly, like the scene in the second Act where Manon’s husband (Geronte) has musicians come to play at his house. It can be playful and folksy, like in the opening of Act 1. Or it can be full of gravitas, like the scenes at the ship where Manon is about to be exiled to the New World. At the far extreme the music is powerful and desolate, like the final act in the desert. That scene is so powerful and heartbreaking. Those final moments are some of the hardest musical moments to sing, because of the intensity of emotion.
Apparently, when someone told Puccini that there was an earlier version of Manon, by Jules Massanet (1884), Puccini famously said, “That was a French version. This will be a wholly Italian version.” Is that emotionality what he meant?
I have sung the Massanet version and it is a very passionate opera. But yes, Puccini’s is so much stronger. It tears the heartstrings out. That is part of the Italian nature of the piece. But Puccini also used new harmonies and musical lines that featured in Italian opera that simply weren’t available to Massanet some ten or fifteen years before.
By the way, it was very helpful to have sung the Massanet version, because Puccini skips large portions of the narrative. There is a large gap in action between the first two acts that are formative for the character of des Grieux.
You have a reputation as an Iron Man of Opera. What is that all about?
[Laughs]: A few years ago, I broke my ankle while preparing to play Samson. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but the production was redesigned so that I didn’t have to walk. They designed this harness system so that I could be carried upright and be moved around through the staging. I’m not sure I was particularly the Iron Man, but really the performance needed to go on.
It’s interesting how the physical part of an opera production has advanced in the last few years. The stage director is really asking for the singers to do so much more acting and movement in their roles. It’s no longer “Park and Bark,” as opera used to be. It’s challenging, but you see how incredibly important it is to act, to convey the emotion of the music and the story. Even in a partly staged performance as this Manon Lescaut will be, you still need interaction and movement. It’s part of being in the role. This won’t be like a concert opera. It won’t feel semi-staged at all.