Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
This is early Puccini and he has not yet gained the compositional sophistication of Madama Butterfly and the three operas of Il trittico. In order to make this opera fly, a company needs an exciting pair playing the lovers and a conductor who can shape the piece.
Maestro Victor DeRenzi must adore this opera because I don't think I have ever heard him conduct with more laser focus, forward thrust and passion. It is easier to deliver a really good performance of a masterpiece like Aida or Carmen than it is to make a good opera play as if it is a masterpiece. The orchestra is right there with him, playing the heck out of this score, which I love, and the lively acoustics of Sarasota's Opera House help give the sound an exciting presence. All of the elements that are so much a part of this composer's writing are here, in rougher form, and the score probably could not be mistaken for anyone but Puccini.
This opera lives or dies on its soprano and tenor; the rest of the cast doesn't much matter. In Sandra Lopez as Manon we have a soprano with a big almost voluptuous voice, who is an excellent actress to help inhabit the character. Matthew Vickers is her lover, the Cavaliere Renato Des Grieux, and the passion of the music just pours out from him, but he is less of a natural actor. His history with the company, coming through the ranks is: apprentice artist 2015; studio artist 2016 2017 a leading tenor role in L'amore dei tre re, which is not as demanding as this one is; and now he continues to grow and excite. I imagine him returning for a couple of tenor heavy operas, one being Andrea Chenier, possibly opposite his soprano partner.
There are several other important roles, but in this opera, the audience doesn't remember that Filippo Fontana sings a fine Lescaut, Manon's brother, or that Costas Tsourakis does fine work as Manon's other suitor, Geronte di Ravoir. Sean Christensen, a studio artist, is mellifluous as Edmondo, a student in act one, complete with an arietta, then doubles in two other cameo roles. Annie Chester and five other madrigal singers in act two do a nice job with a piece that is occasionally excerpted.
Stephanie Sundine directs with a firm hand. The crowd scenes are lively without being chaotic and she keeps the story focused and understandable with the help of surtitles. The company has decided to have an intermission between each of Puccini's four acts, good for the desired dramatic thrust, as each act is separated by a period of time, but making for a bit longer evening than some are used to. A number of audience members were seen leaving after act three, thus depriving themselves of some of Puccini's best music.
David P. Gordon provides lavish sets, a big step up from what has been the norm for this company, which is sometimes a bit nondescript. Howard Tsvi Kaplan's costumes are period appropriate, and for Manon in act two, ravishingly beautiful. Lighting designer Ken Yunker is at his best in the dark morning of act three, but is effective all the way through. Brittany Rappise, hair and make-up designer, does nice work on the principals, though the chorus is not on the same level.
Manon Lescaut is not an easy opera to pull off, yet I am left thinking that this may be the single best production I have ever seen at Sarasota Opera. That is not to slight anything else I have seen because I have never seen anything that was not an enjoyable afternoon or evening in the opera house, and a 2005 production of Lakmé was definitely one of the reasons I chose to settle in this area, but this fine a production of a work that is short of a masterpiece is a wonderful surprise.
Sarasota Opera's Manon Lescaut, through March 23, 2018, at 61 N. Pineapple Avenue, Sarasota FL. For tickets and information call 941-366-8450 or visit www.sarasotaopera.org.