Puccini's Manon Lescaut

Dates 12, 14, 17, 19, 21 October 2006 at 20.00 Venue The Royal Theatre, Victoria, 805 Broughton Street

Manon Lescaut Christiane Riel Lescaut John Avey Chevalier des Grieux Philip Webb Geronte di Ravoir Bruce Kelly

Artistic Director Timothy Vernon Conductor Giuseppe Pietraroia Director Tom Diamond Designer Leslie Frankish Lighting Robert Thomson

Reviewer J H Stape

Pacific Opera Victoria opened its 28th season with a Manon Lescaut that shines brightly on all counts: casting, dramatic impact, musical values, and a relentlessly compelling production. Known for its emphasis on total theatre, the company boldly mounts an opera that has its rough edges as well as its splendours. The first act is diffuse, and there were so many hands on Puccini's libretto that it is unsigned.

The production's updating to 1940s France (the original, based on Prévost's novel, is set in the 18th century) is never less than dazzling, with chilling effects: air raids, search lights, cattle cars for deportation, storm troopers, a bombing raid. Dramatic intensity, flawless characterization, and a deft hand in the pit -- the orchestra plays its heart out for Maestro Giuseppe Pietraroia -- make for an evening that lingers in the memory.

The title-role is singularly well cast as Manon's moods and vulnerability (and foolishness) demand a singing-actress in the first ranks. Soprano Christiane Riel inhabits her role, giving a finely detailed and assured performance from her opening fragility to her doomed end in a bombed out landscape (rather than the libretto's silly deserts of Lousiana). Her voice, in fine form, conveys both her victimhood and the intensity of her hapless love, some of the shaping of the phrases simply spellbinding (particularly in the beautiful mezza voce passages).

Her performance is imbued with a real sense of verismo idiom almost worthy of mentioning the two Renatas (Tebaldi and Scotto). Her convincing dramatic flair covers over a slight tendency to vibrato at the top when under pressure, but her Manon delivers so much raw emotion with so great an impact -- her final "Sola, perduta, abbondonata" was a revelation -- that that is a mere academic cavil.

Less convincingly dramatic, tenor Philip Webb is nonetheless a committed Des Grieux, a rather baritonal tenor in his low register but with ringing, elegantly shaped and bright high notes of the goose-bump inducing kind. His opening aria "Donna non vidi mai" displayed a voice not quite warmed up, but after it, he gave himself to the proceedings without stint.

The sense of a harmoniously working ensemble is abetted by the able singing of POV stalwart bariton John Avey in the role of Lescaut. He offered his characteristically intelligent acting, and sang with polish, while bass-baritone Bruce Kelly, as Geronte, sang stylishly, providing a singularly sophisticated turn to a character too often merely caricatured (say, old pants with deep pockets). Eric Olsen's fine tenor was put to excellent use in no less than three roles, each given full individuality, with his Edmondo particularly well conceived both dramatically and vocally.

Attention to detail is a POV hallmark that pays off every time. The creative team offered stunning sets and lighting, and Tom Diamond's direction and concept were no less than brilliant. The orchestra gave a near impeccable performance, the intermezzo movingly rendered. This winning production, right in every detail as well as on the big picture, ought to be a sure fire sell out.

How lucky Victoria is to have such a musical institution operating at this high level of distinction. The city's tea-and-crumpets image has long been a rather silly one, and it's high time, indeed, that tourists arrive in droves to take in its cultural achievements.

© 2006 J H Stape