San Francisco Opera employed a proven formula for lifting the fortunes of a revival by assembling an exceptional cast for Olivier Tambosi’s realistic interpretation of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.” The production, which opened Friday after a 13-year absence, was made all the more alluring with the return of the company’s masterful former music director Nicola Luisotti.
In a version from Lyric Opera of Chicago, production designer Frank Phlipp Schlössmann’s sets successively depicted varied scenes of 18th-century France — a courtyard in Amiens, mansion in Paris, harbor-side prison in Le Havre, and, finally, deserted plain in Louisiana, ranging from bucolic to lavish to austere. Lighting designer Duane Schuler added atmospheric depth and visual highlights.
The biggest highlight, though, was soprano Lianna Haroutounian, riveting as Manon Lescaut, adding another standout to memorable SFO appearances in title roles in “Tosca” (2014) and “Madama Butterfly” (2016). To paraphrase Puccini’s comment on Manon and her lovers, Haroutounian is a soprano who can have more than one superb Puccini title role performance. (She also excelled here as Nedda in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” in 2018.)
Haroutounian came prepared with ample power and lyrical grace to handle Manon’s extensively demanding vocal assignments while polishing off her fourth role debut at SFO. She compellingly portrayed the poor girl from Arras, France, initially resigned to life at a convent, but who acquires a taste for both a man of good looks and a man of good finance. She’s skilled at attracting them, but not as adept at remaining loyal to either one.
As Manon’s handsome suitor Chevalier des Grieux, tenor Brian Jagde was impressive in his fifth role debut this year. His voice resonating with ringing intensity and virile beauty, Jagde was ardent and dashing as the student from Amiens who quickly wins Manon’s heart, only to lose it but ultimately regain it. His character’s passion for Haroutounian’s Manon was palpable from the start, and their love duets were meltingly splendid.
The remainder of the cast all made solid contributions, including smooth-voiced baritone Anthony Clark Evans as Lescaut, Manon’s overbearing brother; booming bass-baritone Philip Skinner as Geronte di Ravoir, who becomes Manon’s sugar daddy before vengefully punishing her with the weight of the law for her infidelity; and appealing tenor Christopher Oglesby as the student poet Edmondo.
Luisotti’s reunion with the orchestra he led from 2009-18 was an obvious lovefest, evident from the plush textures and Italianate verve he drew from the ensemble as well as the repeated warm ovations he drew from the audience.
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13, Nov. 16, Nov. 20 and Nov. 26; 2 p.m. Nov. 24
Tickets: $26 to $398
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com