By Joshua Kosman
SAN FRANCISCO (San Francisco Chronicle) — It’s no easy matter getting an opera audience to warm to the title character of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.” She’s vain, flighty, materialistic — no, a straight-up gold-digger — and although her music tells us that she’s beautiful and sometimes even in love, that doesn’t actually do the rest of us any good. It certainly doesn’t inspire us to feel very invested in her fate.
That task, rather, falls to the soprano who undertakes the assignment. And to the extent that the San Francisco Opera’s revival of “Manon Lescaut” took wing at all during the opening performance on Friday, November 8, at the War Memorial Opera House, it was thanks, once again, to the efforts of soprano Lianna Haroutounian.
This is now a familiar tale for San Francisco opera lovers. Each time Haroutounian comes to town — usually in an opera of Puccini — she unveils a performance of such grace and dramatic fervor that other concerns fade into the background. She’s given us an imperious, full-toned “Tosca,” and a delicate yet evocative “Madama Butterfly.”
On November 8, she tackled the greater challenge of fleshing out a character who is at heart little more than a collection of tics and idiosyncrasies. Manon’s journey begins with her being shipped like a reluctant UPS package to life in the convent, continues with a brief internal struggle between love and luxury in 18th century Paris, and comes to a weepy end outside the French penal colony of Louisiana, where the bayou has been replaced by a barren desert.
Through it all, Manon’s response is never more than tissue-thin — this early work of Puccini’s finds him still working toward the depth of characterization he would summon up in later operas. Yet Haroutounian continuously managed to locate whatever dramatic truth is present in the score.