Grand opera abhors a vacuum — it's too big and expensive not to — which is why the last-minute loss of a leading soprano didn't spell disaster for the Opera Company of Philadelphia's production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut.
The Friday-night opening at the Academy of Music had its glitches. The handsome but complicated scenery didn't always work smoothly. The spotlight had trouble sticking with the person singing. And the opera itself is less than great. But none of that was so important because singers and orchestra rocked — and that included the young replacement soprano Michelle Johnson, who learned the title role in little more than three weeks.
It was a good night, in part because no one came counting on the opera to buoy them up, as so many better Puccini works do. The seductive, picaresque Manon flees convent life, goes from man to man, frock to frock, and continent to continent in 18th-century Europe and America. But because the hotter narrative twists happen offstage, the opera itself curiously spends its time reacting to turns of events rather than dramatizing them. The music justifies the opera's place on the Academy of Music stage, though the words may have left some patrons wishing that there were no surtitles.
Apart from the titles, the John Pasco production from the Washington National Opera offered welcome text narration before many of the opera's scenes (usually a documentary film technique): Words were projected onto the stage in 18th-century script, purporting to be from the original memoir-style novella on which the opera is based. Puccini's pacing flags when he gives the tenor more music to sing in Act I, but the use of text narration turned a digressive aria into a moment when protagonist Chevalier des Grieux steps outside the action and looks back on his best and worst of times with beautiful, self-destructive Manon.
Director Michael Cavanagh addressed the drawn-out final scene by having Manon die earlier than usual, her departed spirit giving her final farewell to des Grieux, in a desert landscape dotted with wreckage of her past.
Minus the opening-night glitches, the production is quite satisfying. There's just one misstep: During her more luxurious days, Manon has a walk-in closet clearly suggesting that she's a bird in a gilded cage. In fact Manon is never trapped — particularly as played by Johnson.
The soprano was irreverently playful in sending up the airs Manon takes on with newfound wealth, though Johnson will doubtless find subtler ways to project such interpretive ideas. Vocally, the 29-year-old Texan, in her final year at the Academy of Vocal Arts, didn't knock it out of the park — but she will. She commands a richer, more Puccini-appropriate voice than the originally scheduled Ermonela Jaho. More impressively, her singing has magnetic immediacy thanks to clean vocal lines and word coloring that made her singing speak in beautifully formed musical sentences, similar to the young Renata Tebaldi.
Her des Grieux, tenor Thiago Arancam, matched her more through willpower than vocal gifts — with excellent high notes, good looks, and heroic demeanor, even if the lack of color and heft in his middle register suggests the voice isn't quite finished.The two baritones were excellent, Troy Cook as Manon's brother, and especially Daniel Mobbs as her sugar daddy, who told you all you needed to know just by the way he moved.
The performance catalyst was conductor Corrado Rovaris: Like the Italian maestros of the early 20th century, his Puccini has a strong pulse and no gratuitous prettiness. The orchestral playing was first class.
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Manon Lescaut Music by Giacomo Puccini, libretto based on "L'Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut" by Abbe Prevost. Conducted by Corrado Rovaris, production by John Pascoe, directed by Michael Cavanagh. Cast: Manon Michelle Johnson Chevalier des Grieux Thiago Arancam Lescaut Troy Cook Geronte de Ravoir Daniel Mobbs Presented by the Opera Company of Philadelphia at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Tickets: $8-$225. Information: 215-893-1018 or www.operaphila.org.