- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

The Washington National Opera made its long-awaited return to the Kennedy Center Opera House Saturday evening with a lavish new production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.”

Resplendent with rich costuming and decadent sets by director John Pascoe, this realization of Puccini’s first masterpiece is the most visually arresting creation the company has staged in recent memory.

Unfortunately, the singing frequently failed to live up to the promise of its fantastic setting.

Set in pre-revolutionary France, Puccini’s opera is the tale of a vain young woman who prizes frippery more than common sense. Guarded by her disreputable brother Lescaut, Manon is to be locked up in a convent but steals away with a young poet, the Chevalier des Grieux. This irritates the old rou Geronte who has just paid Lescaut handsomely to procure his sister for himself.

But love has its limits. Manon grows tired of her impoverished poet and winds up as Geronte’s mistress, lavished with finery like one of Donald Trump’s trophy spouses without a pre-nup. But Manon still carries a flame for the hunkier des Grieux. When he arrives to carry her off again, Geronte has her arrested as a prostitute and deported to — quelle horreur — America. The devoted Chevalier follows her, but complications lead to her untimely end.

Mr. Pascoe’s sets for this production, particularly in the second act, are a bizarre concoction of rococo extravagance yoked to postmodernist chaos. The running graphic backdrops and foregrounds uniting the acts thematically also seem designed as a respectful gesture recalling the company’s yearlong exile in Constitution Hall where fabric and film frequently filled in for scenic elements.

Soprano Veronica Villarroel portrayed Manon as the flibbertigibbet she is — a girl who can’t say no to golden trifles and trinkets. Miss Villarroel’s acting was inspired, limning Manon’s painful trajectory from ditziness to doom. However, unlike her planet-stopping portrayal of Madame Butterfly two seasons ago, her usually supple voice seemed to lack confidence on opening night. Miss Villarroel’s pitch was at times inaccurate, her singing at times diffident. Perhaps things will improve as this production settles down.

The singing of baritone Roberto Servile (Lescaut) was problematic as well. There was an indistinct quality to his intonation, particularly during Act II. And throughout, his vocal timbre blended so well with the orchestra’s horns and woodwinds that he tended to disappear in ensembles.

More successful were baritone William Parcher (Geronte) and tenors Corey Even Rotz (Edmondo) and Franco Farina (des Grieux). Mr. Parcher, like Mr. Servile, was occasionally buried by the orchestra. But his sleazy Geronte, was convincing nonetheless, the embodiment of a decadent-and doomed-aristocracy. As des Grieux’s friend, Mr. Rotz made the most of his brief, early solo opportunities. And Mr. Farina was the best soloist of the evening, dominating the stage with his lean, clean, and youthful tenor.

The chorus seemed disorganized on opening night and was often at odds with the orchestra in the opening stanza. Worse, they were often barely audible. Only in the vigorous ship-boarding finale to Act III, did the chorus seem to come into its own.

Fortunately, the WNO Orchestra, under the baton of the company’s general director, Placido Domingo, played at its symphonic best. This was particularly in evidence during Puccini’s orchestral intermezzo, which was moved from its usual place in the center of the work and positioned more effectively between Acts III and IV.

**

WHO: The Washington National Opera

WHAT: Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”

WHEN: Thursday,April 6, 13, and 16 at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m., and April 10 and 19 at 7 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

TICKETS: $41 to $285

INFORMATION: Call 202/295-2400 or visit online at www.dc-opera.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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