Soprano Lianna Haroutounian (left) with Brian Jagde (right) in Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" during a dress rehearsal at the SF Opera on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, in San Francisco, Calif.

Review: A Party Girl Gets Her Comeuppance in San Francisco Opera’s ‘Manon Lescaut’


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in 18th century Paris, and comes to a weepy end outside the French penal colony of Louisiana, where the bayou has been replaced by a barren desert.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.

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Her arrival in Act 1, dewy and fresh-eyed, was shaped with singing of elegant simplicity, especially in the introductory motif (“Manon Lescaut mi chiamo”) that serves repeatedly as a musical tag for her character. In Act 2, the emotional whiplash that drives Manon to waver between her lover and her jewelry felt genuinely anguished as well as contemptible.

And in the final two acts, which the company has wisely run together in this elegantly realistic production by director Olivier Tambosi and designer Frank Philipp Schlößmann, the dark outcome of Manon’s life — criminal conviction, exile, death — took on a somewhat tragic aspect in Haroutounian’s account. The big concluding aria, Sola, perduta, abbandonata, boasted all the expressive urgency it needs to feel truly moving rather than simply campy.

Yet for all her vocal agility and theatrical resources, Haroutounian is not the kind of performer who can single-handedly hoist an operatic performance onto her shoulders and carry it to the finish line. She lacks, to take the obvious example, the imperious grandeur of Karita Mattila, whose “Manon Lescaut” here in 2006 simply dispersed any difficulties through force of character.

Anthony Clark Evans (left), soprano Lianna Haroutounian (middle) with tenor Brian Jagde (right) in Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” during a dress rehearsal at the SF Opera on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, in San Francisco, Calif.

This time around, the difficulties popped up on all sides. The company’s former music director, Nicola Luisotti, conducted inconsistently — now driving the music forward in a manic burst of energy, now letting it lapse into languorous aimlessness — and often seemed heedless about the balances between the orchestra and the singers. The sumptuously beautiful orchestral interlude that precedes Act 3, with no singers to contend with, emerged as the evening’s most satisfying episode.

Tenor Brian Jagde, to whom the company returns unwaveringly when any Italian repertoire is involved, gave his familiar performance as the impoverished student Des Grieux who loves Manon — vigorous and thrillingly fearless at the role’s climactic junctures, but underwhelming in passages of middling intensity or vocal range. Baritone Anthony Clark Evans’ performance as Manon’s weirdly weaselly brother flitted in and out of focus, and even the Opera Chorus struggled at times to give their music the requisite vitality.

Happily, the veteran bass-baritone Philip Skinner was on hand to bring a measure of robust and insinuating villainy to the part of the lecherous Geronte, and there were strong contributions from Adler Fellows Christopher Oglesby, Ashley Dixon and Zhengyi Bai.

Yet none of it mitigated the feeling that this was an elaborate attempt to get us to sign on to an emotional voyage — Manon’s passage from innocence to experience — that we would have been just as happy to opt out of.

“Manon Lescaut” ran at the San Francisco Opera through November 26. For upcoming programs visit


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