‘Manon Lescaut’ best Puccini in years

Anyone who saw Sunday afternoon’s revival of “Manon Lescaut” at the War Memorial is likely still burbling about the performance of Karita Mattila in the title role. The Finnish beauty with the silvery soprano is as good an actress as Cherry Jones.

Yet Mattila shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone who has followed her dramatic career at San Francisco Opera, or as an enchanting recitalist who is apt to kick off her shoes to sing gypsy songs.

The surprise was not that Mattila sang and acted the spots off the country bumpkin who parlays her good looks into love and wealth, only to lose it all because of greed, but that the rest of the production and performance was up to her level, making this the best Puccini we’ve had in at least a decade of dreary “Butterflies.”

The problem with “Manon Lescaut” is that, despite its title, it is the tenor’s opera. Long, hard, high and nearly impossible to sing against the composer’s youthfully thunderous orchestration, Des Grieux also has to be handsome, sexy, passionate.

I’ve never seen a perfect Des Grieux, though I’ve heard a few who came close, and I would not have believed Misha Didyk could do it, but he did. First of all, he was tireless, still belting those high notes in the last act, even over conductor Donald Runnicles’ wide-open reading.

Secondly, he offered at least a modicum of the honeyed, seductive tones one expects from a French Chevalier. The duets, with Mattila as a fully involved partner, reached their passionate peak and beyond. And make no mistake, this is the most thrilling love music in all Puccini.

If it had been just those two, Runnicles and Puccini, it would have been enough, but almost everything worked. Adler Fellows Sean Panikkar (Edmondo) and Kendall Gladen (madrigal singer) lighted up their small roles.

John Hancock (Lescaut) and Eric Halfvarson (Geronte) seemed to be right off the stage of the Comedie Francaise. Director Olivier Tambosi created naturalistic stage pictures and telling detail. Ian Robertson’s chorus was a prominent protagonist.

And, except for a cramped third act set that kept the ensemble from soaring, Frank Philipp Schlossmann’s realistic designs were a delight.

How sensible not to set an 18th century opera in a storm drain on 2080 Mars.

Opera review

Manon Lescaut ????

Presented by San Francisco Opera

WHEN: Through Dec. 10

WHERE: 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

PRICE: $30 to $245

INFO: (415) 864-3330 or www.sfopera.com

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