Review: Puccini’s ‘Manon Lescaut’ at SF Opera (***)

by Charles Kruger

Lianna Haroutounian as Manon and Brian Jagde as the Chevalier des Grieux in SF Opera’s production of Puccini’s first great success, “Manon Lescaut.” Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/SF Opera.

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Much less familiar than Puccini’s “big three” masterpieces (La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly), Manon Lescaut was the composer’s first great success.

The story of the rather shallow but fascinating Manon who denies true love in favor of a life of luxury with an older suitor is well suited to operatic treatment, and the opera is famous among connoisseurs for its multiple love duets, among the finest in the repertoire. And the role of Manon is often described as an ideal showcase for a great soprano.

The greatest joys of this production are the wonderful duets performed by the always excellent Brian Jagde and the great Lianna Haroutounian, both making role debuts. Jagde has been extraordinarily busy, playing a huge variety of roles in major opera houses worldwide. It is easy to see why he is in demand. He is a singer who seems to achieve his effects effortlessly. Haroutounian is known for the exceptional power of her vocal instrument, and a capacity for extreme passion.

As Manon’s brother, Anthony Clark Evans is an unusually convincing operatic actor, and as the lecherous Geronte di Ravoir, bass-baritone Phillip Skinner makes a fine villain.

Nicola Luisotti gets a wonderful sound out of the SF Opera Orchestra, and the overture and other orchestral sequences are highlights.

Unfortunately, these many features are not enough to overcome an oddly clumsy staging, with performers’ movements (especially the chorus) seemingly random and unmotivated. This makes it difficult to follow the plot at times. Also, there are moments when both Jagde and Haroutounian seem to be evoking an acting style reminiscent of the 19th century–overblown and melodramatic, and inappropriate to Puccini’s intentions for opera verite.

All of these flaws are absent from the final duet, which is magnificent, but by that time it is too late to save the production.

This “Manon Lescaut” will be best appreciated by committed fans of the opera, already very familiar with the music, and willing to forgive the flaws in the staging. Others are not likely to be won over.

‘Manon Lescaut’ continues at the War Memorial Opera House through November 26. For further information click here.

Rating: *** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Please Read This (click here)

“Manon Lescaut” by Giacomo Puccini. Libretto by Ruggero Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Giuseppe Giacosa, Domenico Oliva, and Luigi Illica. Produced by SF Opera. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Director: Olivier Tambosi. Production Designer: Frank Philipp Schlössmann. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler. Choreographer: Lawrence Pech. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson.


Edmondo: Christopher Oglesby. Chevalier des Grieux: Brian Jagde (Rafael Davita on November 26). Lescaut: Anthony Clark Evans. Innkeeper: SeokJong Baek. Marion Lescaut: Lianna Haroutounian. A Singer: Ashley Dixon. Madrigalists: Angela Eden Moser, Jesslyn Thomas, Laurel Cameron Porter, Sally Mouzon. Dancing Master: Zhengyi Bai. Sergeant: William Bryan. Lamplighter: Zhengyi Bai. Sergeant of Archers: Christian Pursell. Naval Captain: SeakJung Baek. 

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