Puccini’s ‘Manon Lescaut’ is too alluring to resist
By Naila Francis
She may not be the most likable of opera heroines, but that only made Michelle Johnson more determined to play Manon Lescaut, the strong-willed title character in Puccini’s breakthrough opera who is torn between true love and a life of opulence.
“She was beautiful and she was not afraid to use her feminine wiles to get what she wanted,” says Johnson, the 2011 Grand Prize Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions who will be making her debut with the Opera Company of Philadelphia in “Manon Lescaut,” opening Friday. “Would I prefer her not to be so materialistic? Yes. But she is who she is.
“I don’t want the audience to dislike her. She’s extremely young, 16-17, and very high-spirited. I do think she’s immature, but at the same time, she has to grow up pretty fast throughout the show because of the situations she is put in. By the time she gets to Act IV, I do hope there’s some sympathy for her.”
It was Act IV, the final act in Puccini’s intensely romantic tale, that interested Johnson in the role even though the 29-year-old admits she was looking forward to sitting in the audience for the OCP production, after just coming off of singing Lenora in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” with Houston’s Opera in the Heights.
Manon Lescaut would present an even bigger challenge for Johnson, a fourth-year resident artist at the Academy of Vocal Arts. Her character never leaves the stage and, despite her youth, is often sung by sopranos in their 30s and 40s.
But approached by OCP for the role last month, Johnson eagerly accepted after a quick study of the score. Her only prior experience in a Puccini role was in a concert performance of his one-act opera “Suor Angelica” with the Academy of Vocal Arts last year, but the composer, known for operas such as “La bohème,” “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly,” has always been one of her favorites.
“You can just feel every emotion in Puccini. It’s almost mushy,” says the soprano. “I think it’s very accessible for so many people because you hear a tune and you can remember the tune. I also love it because all of his characters are so real and relatable.
“I’d never seen ‘Manon Lescaut’ before but I’d heard the music. … And Act IV, it’s just so simple and her aria — ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’ — is just gut-wrenching. I wanted the challenge of how one can come from such a happy place to almost this minimalism at the end. She’s alone, she’s lost, she’s abandoned. I wanted to be able to go through the different stages of her life to get to Act IV to see that, ‘Wow, this is how she gets there.’”
In the opera, Puccini’s third and his first big hit when it premiered in 1893, a young, impetuous Manon is sentenced by her parents to life in a convent. She falls for a penniless student, Chevalier des Grieux (tenor Thiago Arancam), and flees with him to Paris but is eventually lured away by the wealthy and older Geronte de Ravoir (bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs). She never gets over Des Grieux, however, and seizes a chance to reunite with him but not before she can gather all her jewels. That misstep ends up banishing the young lovers to a foreign land, where a dismal fate awaits.
“It’s a big story, with big things happening to big people,” says Michael Cavanagh, who also is making his OCP debut helming the production. The Canadian director, like everyone else in the cast, is working on “Manon Lescaut” for the first time. The opera hasn’t been performed by OCP in more than 25 years.
“It’s kind of on the edge of obscurity,” he says. “A lot of people have heard about it but not a lot of people have seen it.”
It’s a work that requires great vocal athleticism and stamina.
“Everybody has a story to tell and a journey to take, and they all go through the wringer in this show,” says Cavanagh. “Our soprano and tenor especially have this really arduous story arc. They’re completely different people at the end of the evening than they are at the beginning.”
The opera is based on a 1731 novel, “L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut,” by French author Abbé Prévost. His Manon proved so beguiling that French composers Daniel Auber and Jules Massenet would both turn her story into operas before Puccini himself would fall in love with her, insisting his operatic treatment would differ because he would “feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion.”
Here, he succeeded, notes Cavanagh, who also made recent debuts with San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera Kansas City, directing “Nixon in China.”
“The music just sweeps you along and pulls you into these amazing states of mind that nobody does better than Puccini. Giving sound to these incredible human emotions — nobody does it like him,” he says. “His first two operas (‘Le Villi’ and ‘Edgar’) were quite derivative. Great artists often copy other artists while discovering their own style. The art emerges out of the craft. … ‘Manon Lescaut’ was only the third opera he was ever given a chance to write, and it’s the emergence of brilliance.”
The work hinges on two of Puccini’s cherished themes: the heroine who struggles against a destiny that is not her own, and the notion of youth extinguished too soon.
“These young lovers, they squander the chance they had for happiness both because of internal issues and external forces, but the end result is tragedy because the hope they had for this beautiful life together is snuffed out. It’s a cautionary tale,” says Cavanagh. “What this piece is saying to us, if we care to listen, is don’t waste your life. Take your chances for happiness where you see them and make the most of them.”
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