HOT soprano navigates nuances of complex 'Manon' with style


POSTED: Sunday, February 01, 2009

On this very day in 1893 at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, Puccini enjoyed his first success with “;Manon Lescaut.”; His masterpiece had to compete with two other eminent “;Manons”; from French composers Auber (1856) and Massenet (1884), and other contemporary works by Verdi, Mascagni and Leoncavallo.





        » On stage: 4 p.m. today and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

» Place: Blaisdell Concert Hall


» Tickets: $29 to $120


» Call: (800) 836-7372 or visit www.hawaiiopera.org


Manon's beauty, her longing for love, her compulsive desire for money and the realistic setting of her story in Puccini's rendition was finally showcased here Friday in the Hawaii Opera Theatre's season opener. And soprano Julia Kierstine substantiated the myth.

Manon's role requires a strong lirico spinto soprano, one who can sing over the orchestra while carrying a dramatic tone. At the same time Manon must be gracious, coquettish and sometimes shy - able to magnetize young and old men, while fascinating the audience with her voice.

Kierstine had all these qualities and more. With nuanced expressiveness, volume control, a shimmering voice and a wonderful stage presence, she won the audience's approval with no reservation.

The score is intricate and rich. Floating love themes, rhythmic and harmonic complexity, and long themes keep the orchestra busy. Rarely “;accompanying”; the singers, the musicians lay a thick texture for their lines.

The work requires a great conductor and strong singers. Maestro Ivan Toerzs had the passion, even if he sometimes pushed the orchestra with Wagnerian impulse.

On the libretto side, although faithful to the original novel by the Abbe Prevost, Puccini's opera is not the ultimate work of poetry. Five stressed-out librettists worked on it, four quit and even Puccini added words to the second act.

Manon meets des Grieux in the first act, in a square in Amiens, France, in the mid-1700s. She is 18, on her way to a monastery. Their first duet, when they quickly fall in love, is the turning point of the opera. Kierstine immediately established her persona, but also her vocal qualities.

But the couple's love is haunted by her passion for riches and by the supplier of those assets. Bass Valerian Ruminski delivered with facility the role of Geronte de Ravoir, a rich, old and callous Parisian gallant. The lovers run away, to return in the second act.

That's when the opera's drama surfaces. And so does the fine music. A fantastic exchange between Manon and her multitalented brother Lescaut, performed by skillful baritone Kelly Anderson, takes place in the bedroom of the Geronte palace. Manon has moved in, deciding that money wins over love (only in opera can you see such fast changes of time, location and ideas). The singers showed their subtle vocal chemistry.

The set of that act was gorgeous, masterfully provided by Peter Dean Beck. Focusing on the bed, we see des Grieux meeting again with Manon. The second real duet between the two takes place, but unfortunately Richard Crawley did not fully deliver des Grieux's Italianate strength and passion.

Manon's arrest after Geronte denounces her comes with a very dramatic orchestral, almost cinematic accompaniment. Her deportation changes the whole tone of the opera - and the last two acts, tied together by an orchestral intermezzo, transforms the mood into one that is gloomy and terribly sad. The third act shows a changed Manon and many other women like her who will be deported to Louisiana. And the last act takes place in Louisiana, where in the desert (a metaphor for repentance rather than a real geographical location) she dies suffering in the arms of the hero.

This production, directed by Jay Lesenger, is worth watching, thanks also to the capable HOT chorus, tenor Erik Haines (des Grieux's friend Edmondo), mezzo-soprano Pauline Taumalolo (a singer), bass John Mount (the captain) and tenor James Price (hair dresser/lamp lighter).


Valeria Wenderoth has a doctorate in musicology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she also teaches.