Opera Review: Winter Opera brings Puccini’s first big hit to Saint Louis
By Benjamin Torbert
In Winter Opera Saint Louis’ seventeenth season, general director Gina Galati reminded us, the company has never repeated an opera. The final weekend in March 2020 preceding The Plague, Winter Opera offered the Saint Louis premiere of Puccini’s capolavoro, “La Fanciulla Del West.” This year (19 and 21 January 2024) they did the same for his third opera and first hit, “Manon Lescaut” (1893), rostering a well-cast amorous triangle of Zoya Gramagin’s title character, Taylor Comstock’s Des Grieux, and Joseph Park’s Geronte. The programming choice was particularly appreciated for the richness of “Manon Lescaut’s” score, awfully close to the peak Puccini of the far more-frequently performed trio of “La Bohème,” “Tosca,” and “Madama Butterfly.” Collect them all—at the centennial of Puccini’s death, Saint Louis has now heard all ten of his canonical works live.
Lacking one larger [grand] opera company, Saint Louis instead tends a diversified portfolio of one medium-sized (Opera Theatre) and two smaller-scale organizations (Union Avenue Opera and Winter Opera), plus a concert opera at the Saint Louis Symphony biennially or so. This arrangement affords numerous perks. Although nobody’s performing, say, Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” here anytime soon, outside the most HR-intensive works, the three companies expose Saint Louis to more diverse repertory than would be the case with one larger company running maybe five shows annually. Our troika have mostly proven adept at nonduplication (over-frequent “Carmen” “Bohème” and “Barber” notwithstanding), each with a concentration outside opera’s canonical jukebox, contemporary in OTSL’s case, August Broadway shows in UAO’s, and operetta in Winter Opera’s. The most conservative of the three, Winter Opera sticks almost entirely to pre-WWII rep, finding orchestral reductions not exceeding twenty-six instrumentalists, shoehorned into the modest pit at Kirkwood’s PAC. I really admire this commitment to staging works that might be considered “too big” for the company; in resource-focused arguments, classical music denizens love discussing what they think companies and singers “shouldn’t” do, whether the resources are the company’s money or the size of singers’ voices. Too, that latter limitation eases in a more intimate venue with a smaller orchestra. One reason “La Bohème” gets performed at ten times “Manon Lescaut’s” frequency is that everyone loves it, but another is that casting the lirico-spinto tenor in “Manon Lescaut” proves more difficult. So much the better if he needn’t tickle Family Circle at the cavernous 3800-seat Metropolitan.
Puccini set Manon Lescaut’s delicious score to a too-many-cooks libretto (with seven chefs including the composer and the publisher, Giulio Ricordi), derived from Antoine François Prévost’s 1731 novel, “Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux, et de Manon Lescaut” once the most reprinted in the French language. Nonetheless, the text works magnificently, offering Puccini dozens of opportunities for elevating “small” true-to-life dramatic moments to mythic proportion, such as Act III’s eerie, mesmerizing roll call of the prostitutes, a concertato of sorts. Distilled from the more masculine-focused novel, the stream-lined opera centers Manon throughout. At a tavern in Amiens, believing herself headed to a convent, Manon awaits her brother Lescaut, who’s busy fixing her up (read: pimping her out, nearly) with an aged, pecunious tax collector, Geronte di Ravoir. Lescaut distracted, Manon meets an aristocratic but disinherited student, Chevalier Des Grieux. After they fall in love at a Romeo-and-Juliet pace, Des Grieux’s money runs out (between acts) and Manon moves in with Geronte in Paris, at Lescaut’s urging, though her brother keeps in touch with Des Grieux and teaches him how to cheat at gambling, so that he might achieve marriageability. When Des Grieux returns and the youngsters move to flee, tarrying to collect her jewels, Geronte sics the cops on Manon, resulting in her Act III incarceration, awaiting deportation with prostitutes at Le Havre. After Des Grieux and Lescaut attempt and fail to spring her from jail, Des Grieux prevails upon the departing ship’s captain to board him with the prisoners. The underrated fourth act, with its longform duet-aria-duet structure and downright Wagnerian orchestration, takes place in the Louisiana Territory. After a futile search for potable water, Manon expires from dehydration in Des Grieux’s arms, out in the boonies. Long 19C opera tends to worship women, abjected or not: Manon expires in sacramental dimensions before the audience’s adoration, not despite but because she seems like someone you might actually meet in real life. Her last act offers fight, and psychological complexity. Though her story is built out less extensively than in Massenet’s “Manon” (1884), no matter; Puccini hits the listener with tuneful verismo cascades, square in your diaphragm. Many opera fans enjoy nationalistic stereotyping comparisons of the earlier French work (considered subtle, sophisticated) to Puccini’s take, in a generally inane fashion. You can find evidence offered for the Italian work (passionate, over-the-top directness) in the French when Manon flings herself atop a prie-Dieu at St. Sulpice claiming that she’s actually Des Grieux’s eucharist. Conversely, Puccini’s quite capable of subtlety when required.
For a successful “Manon Lescaut,” you can cast the men merely well, but Manon must be a home run, since the character achieves archetype and demands the audience’s focus in every scene she inhabits, nearly the entire opera. Since her superb Tatanya in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at Union Avenue (2022), I’ve eagerly anticipated Muscovite/New Yorker soprano Zoya Gramagin in Puccini. Gramagin produces a warm, Italianate sound devoid of darkened vowels, integrated through the registers, and beautiful throughout. Her timbre reminds me a little of Mirella Freni (1935-2020), but with a faster vibrato. Her creamy, focused sound blossomed introducing herself to Des Grieux, “Manon Lescaut mi chiamo.” Appearing in a Columbia blue dress with a sweetheart neckline and a curly auburn wig, she perused a book, melancholy before Des Grieux interrupted her and disarmingly direct when describing herself as “povera.” Gramagin projected more girl-next-door than divahhhh, which underscores the character’s trajectory through Act II—don’t be fooled by the rocks that she got; she’s still Mannie from Amiens. Such regret in her voice in “In Quelle Trine Morbide,” with a ringing high B♭ at the end of the first stanza, and heartrending diminuendi, especially in the duet when she asked Des Grieux, “non m’ami più?”
And then you go to Le Havre city jail. Again, Puccini weathers a lot of criticism for his women, abjected, but the remarkable Act III doesn’t read misogynistically to me—the music and the ritualistic name checking and the choral observers’ evaluations of each serve to indict the audience if they’re thinking similarly rather than siding with these dignified women, some probably trafficked. The scene also underlines for the audience that this judgy dynamic has ruled Manon’s life up to this point as well; in the first two acts, Geronte’s and especially Des Grieux’s language about her frequently reek of projection. Puccini plays public-private juxtapositions with a less monumental public than his compatriot Verdi, who sometimes leans into an almost Herzogian “God Against All.” Gramagin’s Manon, of course, exited her cell and arrived to ensemble last, and soared appropriately when she stood out from the group. She paced her vocalism well, saving a lot of oomph and still-nuanced dynamic control for her big number “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” in Act IV, expressing exhaustion without sounding exhausted, an Ash Wednesdayish smudge on her forehead. The voice cut more than at the beginning of the evening and embodied Manon’s survival up to this point. Gramagin received the loudest applause.
Winter Opera cast Manon’s wooers well. Bass-baritone Joseph’s Park’s Geronte, in fact, was too good; the character ranks Manon by a generation or more, as other characters repeatedly call him “Vecchio” (old). Manon’s choice of Des Grieux over Geronte usually presents as youth/passion over seniority/security, but Park swaggered onstage handsome, virile, better tailored, and in glorious voice—I didn’t think ‘vecchio’ was Italian for ‘babe magnet.’ Staying shacked up with him seemed plausible for Manon. Park, a veteran of Opera Theatre’s young artists program and Saint Louis opera generally, excels in Puccini with turns as Angelotti (“Tosca”) at OTSL and Yamadori (“Madama Butterfly”) at Winter Opera in recent seasons; he shone as Elder Ott in the quartet of churchy pervs at OTSL’s tour-de-force “Susannah” last year. Tenor Taylor Comstock gave an increasingly strong performance as Des Grieux, after Act I’s slightly strained production. (I don’t understand how anyone can sing when the dewpoint is 15 below). The voice lined up as the acts progressed—one spot where a larger orchestra was missed was Act II’s reunion duet, but Comstock produced a heavier sound where the score demands, and he scaled it back for piano markings, especially singing her name. He saved his best moment all night for the character’s, managing some real squillo in Des Grieux’s cray outburst, “Pazzo son, guardate.” He calibrated well Des Grieux’s grief in Act IV, attuned dynamically to Gramagin, and his acting situated the character as more relatable and less alpha than some tenors.
The comprimario singers mostly represented themselves well, chief among them mezzo-soprano Jessica Barnes’ effective set piece as the singer invited to alleviate Manon’s boredom with diegetic music. (In the 18C, this person probably would have been a male castrato, not a woman, but Puccini and his contemporaries didn’t speak Countertenor, so, mezzo). Baritone Jonathan Stinson’s Lescaut sounded a little woofy but he acted the part masterfully, walking the fine line between nudging Manon to make cynical material decisions and trafficking her. And bass Michael Oelkers struck the right mix of gruff and sass with the Ship Captain’s zinger about Des Grieux’s desire to “populate the Americas.” Winter Opera’s chorus usually meets the challenge, and “Manon Lescaut” gave them ample opportunities, especially that heart-rending ensemble surrounding the roll call of at-risk women.
Scuttlebutt had it that stage director Geovandy Jones became disinvolved partway through the rehearsal period, so the production played it extremely straight, offering scarcely any interpretive ideas. Scott Loebl’s sets, in fact, offered a couple. Manon’s Act III jail cell occupied exactly the same spot as her Act II bed in Geronte’s quarters where Des Grieux re-won her affections. And the backdrop for all four acts was a painting of a maritime scene, most appropriate for Act III (Amiens and Paris lie inland); in the brief pause between Acts III and IV, stagehands fractured the frame along existing faults and brought the canvas to the floor behind Manon and Des Grieux. Jen Blum-Tartara’s costume designs presented an array of attractive looks of a generalized 18C flavor, especially Manon and Geronte’s threads. Though few in number, the orchestra understood the assignment, and conductor Edward Benyas directed a lush reading of the famous intermezzo with a satisfying slancio midway through and a gorgeous solo turn by principal cellist Ranya Iqbal—it’s striking how well these reduced scores work.
Thank goodness we have three opera companies in this town, and props to Winter Opera for biting off the absolute limits of what a small company can chew. Their mainstage season closes 1 and 3 March 2024 with Victor Herbert’s “Naughty Marietta.”