Every age relishes its soap operas. Baby boomers had “Madame X,” Gen-Xers had “Sophie’s Choice.” “The Young and the Restless” is still going strong after forty years.
So it’s no surprise that a work by one of the masters of that form enjoyed two standing ovations at the Ordway Theater Tuesday night (September 24, 2013). Opera enthusiasts may beg to differ, but Giacomo Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” is little more than a potboiler in terms of plot and characterization. Based upon an expository novel by Abbé Prévost banned in France over a century earlier, Puccini’s adaptation contains the innocent yet venal coquette, the lovelorn student-hero, and the bumbling, wealthy old lecher which are the mainstays of nineteenth-century operatic fiction.
To overcome this hodgepodge of dramatic nonsense, the leads must sing and act with a vengeance. This is what Kelly Kaduce (The title character), Dinyar Vania (her lover, des Grieux), and Andrew Wilkowske (the lecher, Geronte) do in spades. They take the sordid subject matter that would become characteristic of the verismo opera form and soar the heights of passion in their dramatic vocalizations.
Every element in the play must be convincing to prevent this vocal emoting from degenerating into comic absurdity. John Robert Lindsey (des Grieux’s fellow student), Matthew Opitz (Manon’s procurer-brother), and the rest of the cast are exceptional at keeping their subsidiary characters memorable yet contributive to the emotional thrust of the story. Michael Christie and his orchestra, set and costume designer John Pascoe, and wig and makeup designer Jason Allen all contribute to the overall believability of this naturalistic tale. Dramatic devices such as setting huge mirrors on each side of the stage and displaying Manon inside a walk-in jewelry case embellish the characters’ emotional states. When the two halves of the manuscript serving as a narrative bridge close for the final time, the curtain literally and figuratively closes the book on these characters.
Puccini would hone his music and libretti into the naturalistic verismo opera form in masterpieces like “La Boheme” and “Turandot,” but last night’s performance demonstrated the power and passion that prototypes like Manon Lescaut would have upon future operatic audiences. For three hours the Minnesota Opera's creative team convinced Boomers along with every other generation in the audience to allow their sensibilities be, as the two lovers are in "Manon Lescaut," “abducted by love.”