Dallas — Anyone who feared what a semi-staged version of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut would be like was immediately assuaged once the show started. It was as almost as riveting as any fully staged production by The Dallas Opera, and had the decided advantage of allowing the viewer to concentrate on the individual performances without the distraction of elaborate sets. This was helped by Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, who delivered a perfectly paced and exceptionally supportive performance.
But it was the absolutely riveting performance of the young American soprano Kristin Lewis that was the takeaway. Her voice is supple and can range from lyric to spinto as the music demands. Vocally, she was divine; always perfectly coloring every phrase with a barely audible whisper and a huge top with clarion high notes. Dramatically, she inhabited the character and became the unfortunate Manon right before our eyes. Sheer magic. Her final aria in the last act was drenched with despair and, with Villaume’s help; her desperate cri de cœur on “ah” was the high point of the entire opera.
Tenor Gregory Kunde is the very model of a modern major tenor. His Italianate sound is just what you want to hear in Puccini and Verdi roles. His high notes are thrilling, although often delivered a bit too forcefully. Dramatically, he was expressive of the emotional turmoil that Des Grieux goes through with the confused and flighty Manon. His costume, designed by Tommy Bourgeois, didn’t help to make him believable as a poor student, but no one really cared once he sang his first phrases. He was especially affecting in the last act, helpless to save Manon. They are lost in the desert outside of New Orleans. (Go figure.)
Bass Andrea Silvestrelli looked great as the ridiculously pompous super-rich Geronte, drooling over a horrified Manon. Vocally, he oversang with his powerful but strained bass voice. Baritone Musa Ngqungwana gave an outstanding performance as Manon’s despicable brother. Tenor Jonas Hacker gave a spritely performance of Des Grieux’s companion Edmundo. His lyric tenor was a bit undersized, especially when compared to the gigantic voices in the rest of the cast.
Matthew Grills gave a questionable turn as the Dancemaster. His trés gai, perfumed pinkface performance feels out of date in this day and age. Flailing, funny fops, once a staple archetype, aren’t as funny on stage anymore—although the audience seemed to enjoy it.
Edward Berkeley’s direction was also excellent, with the exception of the Dancemaster’s carryings-on, considering the limitations imposed on him by being confined to small areas of the stage.
Another questionable decision was the missing parade of courtesans, including the arrested Manon, who board the ship in the third act, heading to exile in the American penal colony. This is always a highlight because they each prance across the stage in an individual manner as their names are called. Some are saucy, some defiant, some devastated and cruising the crew. Here, Manon entered as her name was called but just stood there while the others were summoned. Eventually, we figured out that the traveling spotlight mentioned above was supposed to be this diverse pack of prostitutes filing on board. Why Berkeley didn’t use extras for this is beyond me. Even though they don’t have music to sing, they are still named characters in the score.
The orchestra was on stage and the set was nothing more than two wooden platforms and a writing desk with projected backdrops that changed from act to act. Costumes were period accurate and mostly worked with only a few misfires. Lighting was spotty with some singers completely in the dark and the aforementioned follow spot. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume was dead center but mostly kept his motions in a small frame in front of his body, so it wasn’t long until he disappeared from our perceptions. The exception was in the intermezzo that was so beautifully conducted and played that the audience was entranced.
This is a Manon Lescaut to savor and those who missed Kristin Lewis’ performance, which will go into the lore of the Dallas Opera, will surely regret it.