So, before I get into the show itself, I must admit to being an in-house Manon Lescaut newbie. While seeing the thing staged didn't exactly make me a convert, I definitely have a better appreciation for where its virtues lie, especially when the indomitable Pat Racette was making the case.
Her success was perhaps slightly tempered by a somewhat middling cast around her--one was more or less biding the time til she opened her mouth again--but surely a success nonetheless. The part sits beautifully in her voice, and the audience sat in rapt attention at the delicate shading she brought to each of the big moments, not least of all her "Sola, Perdutta, Abandonnata." That said, there's certainly room for her to take the character deeper--there isn't too much breathing space between flighty and somber in that second Act, and Racette hasn't quite thread the needle on how to make the whole thing click, while the desperation of Act III was credible but not quite distinctive yet.
Her Des Grieux, Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev, delivered a big beefy sound where it counts, but inconsistencies plagued
the rest of his performance. He had an awfully rough time getting started, and once there still managed to frequently slip into muddy intonation and choppy support. A limited bag of FX and sense of nuance also meant the arias were pretty static. Though credit is due for his work in Acts 3 and 4--his palabale anguish and ringing upper register made for a fine partner to Racette and the Le Havre/Louisiana desert sequence resonated in a way that the Act II reunion did not. (Though to my newbie vantage point, this scene feels generally problematic, with the audience poorly set up to sympathize with the lovers in the absence of any other material showing Des Grieux and Manon in love, something Massenet's iteration does quite well.)
Musical values were reinforced by Philipe Auguin in the pit, who delivered a warm, precise reading of the score and brought the best out of the WNO band. As his sophomore year draws to a close, Auguin's presence on the podium continues to guarantee an evening of high musical interest.
This revival is the work of director John Pascoe, who also brought us the fall's very effective Don Giovanni--unfortunately both dramatic and aesthetic sensibilities feel muddled here. Making sense of the 19th century values that drive the Manon story is a challenge for thoughtful modern productions of either of the great settings, and with obstacles like the leaden coquetry business in the first Act, this challenge should not be underestimated. Yet these questions are really central to how the work is presented: how should we engage the "fallen woman" narrative? What does our sympathy for Manon and ostensible identification with Des Grieux mean? How do we understand the character's choices relative to the male authority figures which shape and bind her path at every step?
Pascoe doesn't offer many clear ideas on these fronts, but rather seems to actually dig in around a deliberately non-inquisitive reading. Take for instance the cloyingly nostalgic device of a Disney-enchanted-castle size piece of parchment paper upon which Des Grieux' narration from the original novel appears, which splits apart to reveal each scene, and sometimes closes halfway to frame one of the key arias (props where due--the last is an effective choice). Watching Puccini's great personal statements for Manon delivered, literally, through the prism of Des Grieux' pen is the kind of setup another production might have a field day with, but alas, I think here we are supposed to take it at face value.