If you’ve been wanting to try the opera, start with Washington National Opera’s Manon Lescaut this month at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
Puccini’s first real hit runs a mere two hours, 45 minutes including two intermissions. Within this tight time constraint, the epic love story comes nearly bite-sized.
Soprano Patricia Racette makes her role debut as the tragic heroine Manon Lescaut – a woman torn between her love for the finer things and her love for impoverished student Chevalier des Grieux. After she leaves des Grieux for the wealth of “that ancient dandy” Geronte de Ravoir, her conflicting loves torment her and lead to devastation.
Conductor Phillippe Auguin leads a notable cast: Racette is an American sensation and shines as Lescaut. She fills the stage with her presence and the room with her voice. Making his WNO debut, tenor Kamen Chanev gains all our sympathy as the stalwart companion des Grieux. Bass-baritone Jake Gardner offers some comedic relief as the wealthy Geronte de Ravoir; and baritone Giorgio Caoduro, as Manon’s brother Lescaut, gives the show a youthful presence, which I found helpful for a plot about such young, foolish people. Daniela Mack, as a singer with a group of madrigals in Act II, particularly stood out in the short time she had on stage.
The glowing sets – designed by director John Pascoe – compliment the tragic story well. They succeed in no small part due to lighting designer Ruth Hutson. The scenes beam with daylight and springtime in Act I but darken in breathtaking shades until the hellish reds of Act IV. A sheet of parchment paper woven into the set regularly reminds us of des Grieux the young writer and of the show’s source material as a French novel.
Manon Lescaut fits in well here in DC. The overarching themes course through District life, where political influence too often tempts people away from their first loves. Just steps from the White House, we watch the beautiful protagonist struggle with a choice between power and passion. Our heroine’s temptation toward what glitters ultimately corrupts her and causes her downfall.
The presentation may be epic, but the story is familiar.
Manon Lescaut runs through March 23, 2013 at the Opera House at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Kennedy Center is located at 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC 20566. Closest Metro stop: Foggy Bottom/GWU (Orange/Blue line). For more information call 202-467-4600.