April 25, 2012 at 1:02 PM

A Philadelphia Story

"A night of exquisite conducting, top-drawer costumes, passion and punch..."

By Craig Smith

Critical Faculties

Craig Smith answered an ad for singers for the Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s first season way back when – OK, 1983 – and has been here happily ever since. He is a writer, editor, journalist, arts critic, general wordsmith, and wannabe polymath.

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Think Santa Fe traffic is tangled? Try Philadelphia’s. Think your love-life is cruel? Try any operatic plot. Want to mix tangled and cruel with last-minute turmoil? Take Opera Company of Philadelphia’s recent production of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.” The lead-singer pair of lovers is famously hard to cast. It’s anything but a sprightly evening of pleasant theater. And the originally announced Manon withdrew just a month before the opening.

But there was a dea ex machina to hand in the young (28) American soprano Michelle Johnson. A graduate of Philadelphia’s powerhouse Academy of Vocal Arts and winner of last year’s Metropolitan Opera auditions, she not only learned this big part in something less than four weeks. She fully internalized it vocally and dramatically, projecting a Manon Lescaut so real she might just have been just walking down to the corner trattoria for a cup of chocolate. Oh, wait, for a man. After all, this girl is an on-the-make, venal and gritty hussy as well as pretty and sexy. Puccini dearly loved his soiled doves.

Neither nerves nor tiredness showed at either performance I saw, April 20 and 22—though the 22nd felt more settled in every way on every level by everyone. Johnson moved well and sang quite well, infusing a basically exquisite instrument with quite enough passion and punch to make her a wholly believable Puccini heroine. Her powerhouse moments filled the Academy of Music with throbbing, rich sound; and her soft, limpid singing was gorgeous enough to almost make you forgive Manon’s hard core of greed. The Act IV death scene found Johnson both stunning and soulful.

Manon’s hapless lover, Des Grieux, is a famous singer killer - it’s high, long, loud, and passionate. Thiago Arancam could certainly sing high, loudly, and passionately, and his virile tenor pleased well enough—except at the very top of the voice, where it splatted almost out of control. Arancam also has the blessing of being tall enough for a tenor, dark, slender and handsome; but his acting has two settings, on and off. When on, it was so much a bunch of bad tenor mannerisms, one longed for him to just stand still and pump out the sound.

Baritone Troy Cook was first-rate as Manon’s venal brother, Lescaut – can you spell pimp? – and Daniel Mobbs lent his insouciant bass-baritone and easy movements to Geronte, Manon’s sugar daddy, to very good effect. The lovely madrigal in the second act was deliciously sung by J’nai Bridges and a small ensemble. Young tenors Cody Austin as the heart-easy student lover Edmondo, and John Viscardi as the fey Dancing Master and sad Lamplighter, were worth their weight in silver. So was the excellent chorus. Ah, happy is the city where there are a lot of conservatories filled with good voice students eager to get onstage.

The ostensibly simple set featured a giant scroll, on which excerpts from Abbe Prevost’s eponymous novelette about the man-straddling coquette were projected between acts as a linking and explanatory device. The scroll then split to show the various scenes – an inn courtyard at Amiens, Manon’s luxurious Paris apartments, the port of Le Havre, and finally the wilds of French colonial Louisiana. Not a bad idea, but the April 20 set work was so clunky, and the Act III to IV transition so embarrassingly noisy behind the curtain, that I could only wish the whole crew off in the old New World. The clumsy follow spot operators could have gone right along with them. Things were better April 22, though not perfect. But I must admit the costumes were top-drawer all the way.

Even the messy set noises could not disturb music director Corrado Rovaris’ exquisite conducting. Known in Santa Fe for steerings of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra,” Puccini’s “La bohème” and Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love,” Rovaris is a thoroughgoing musician who always knows his scores inside and out, and also knows what he wants to do with them. Even better, he knows what his cast can do, and has the admirable (and rare) ability to persuade them to do more than they think they can. He never forgets that opera is about feeling and drama as well as music and singing—passand in doing that here, he drew the fine OCOP orchestra players and the entire audience right along with the cast.

An April 21 orchestral concert at Verizon Hall paired the Philadelphia Orchestra and Dallas Symphony Orchestra music director Jaap van Zweden. The Philadelphia has a hundred-year-plus reputation for mixing technique and artistry in a way that’s passed down through orchestral generations. Van Zweden is famously energetic, even antic, and has stirred the DSO up beyond belief. Their partnership was close to perfection.

Even the slowest, most introspective sections of Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony felt gently looming, the massed string tone radiating into the huge hall like thick but luminous fog expanding. And in the biggest sections (and everything in between) of Rimsky Korsakov’s “Russian Easter” Overture, and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, the only thing keeping the Verizon roof on was the rock-bottomed, copper-sheathed partnership between conductor and orchestra. Fasten your seat belts, indeed, and as much for the communicative energy blasting all over the place as for the sound.

Speaking of blasting, the Philadelphia brass players were stunners. Their sound wasn’t a pure battering ram like the Chicago Symphony players, or a flight of electric eagles like New York Philharmonic’s. This was a tight volley of huge bronze spears of different weights and sizes. Van Zweden’s fanatic beat led the players to fling their sound right into the music, and the gamble paid off wonderfully.

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