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San Francisco Opera opened Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” last week, a work based on an 18th century French novel that asks a lot of its heroine.
Manon is a Parisian party girl in search of a sugar daddy. She finds him, but not before falling in love with a handsome young student, Chevalier des Grieux.
When her aged suitor Geronte finds out, he has her arrested and shipped out to a desert in Louisiana, no less. Puccini was daring in his choice of venues.
So while there is a good reason why “Manon Lescaut,’’ Puccini’s third opera, was the first to win a big audience, it is not because of the complicated Paris-to-Louisiana plot.
Puccini himself was never happy with the libretto — he asked everyone from his publisher Ricordi to composer Leoncavallo to work on it, but despite the murky writing, Puccini’s music soars and stays aloft for close to three hours.
It is heavy-duty writing for both Manon and des Grieux, who is by turns despondent and heroic. Some say it the most beautiful love music ever written.
Soprano Lianna Haroutounian and tenor Brian Jagde, in their first turns as Manon and des Grieux , connect onstage with fiery vocalism.
Haroutounian, a memorable Butterfly and Tosca here in recent years, sings her heart out with unleashed fervor and bright color. Yet, Jagde delivers the stronger performance of the two, unleashing his robust, ringing voice with radiant sound.
One has the impression that he all but creates Manon on the stage, urging her first to engage with him and eventually to turn her back on the lecherous Geronte’s jewel caskets and escape to a happier life together.
The drama of Manon’s exile with a shipload of prostitutes is carried by Jagde’s des Grieux; he details the scene as he does the finale and Manon’s death with ease.
Bass-baritone Philip Skinner is a marvelous Geronte, calculating the effect Manon has on his cronies and convincing in his rage when he discovers her affair.
Anthony Clark Evans is appropriately oily as Manon’s scheming brother Lescaut, and Adler Fellow SeokJong Baek is vocally sturdy as the Innkeeper.
Nicola Luisotti, company music director from 2009-2018, is always royally welcomed when he returns to San Francisco, and opening night was no different. His conducting was as usual vivid, never unexciting, and often simply breathless, as in the soaring intermezzo.
The chorus more than kept pace, setting a tone of high energy in Act 1 when students gather at the country inn where Manon first appears.
The production by director Olivier Tambosi and designer Frank Philipp Schlössmann originated at Lyric Opera of Chicago and was first seen here in 2006, with Donald Runnicles conducting and Karita Mattila in the title role.
The period sets are suitably elegant, particularly the outscale bedroom where Manon holds court; the Act 4 wasteland is the usual uncomfortable expanse of sand and rock — what can be done with a Louisiana desert — in this case at least well lit by Duane Schuler.
The branding of the women before boarding ship is a dramatic misstep that altogether diminishes the intensity of des Grieux’s desperation.
“Manon Lescaut’’ runs through Nov. 26 at the War Memorial Opera House.