PUCCINI’S MANON LESCAUT
Singapore Lyric Opera
Friday (31 August 2012)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 September 2012 with the title "Outstanding opera deserves more audiences".
First things first, for congratulations is due to Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) for producing a Puccini opera that is not La Boheme, Tosca, Madam Butterfly or Turandot. Manon Lescaut, Puccini’s third opera and first outright hit, is part of the standard repertory but has never been staged in Singapore. It does not boast of the hit arias that made Puccini so popular, but it nonetheless possesses the drama, sumptuous music with a touch of Wagner, and the characters to make it memorable.
For a first production of something unfamiliar, SLO pooled its strongest resources together to make it one of its best productions to date. Director E. Loren Meeker chose to update the tragedy to the modern day without the gimmickry that usually accompanies such attempts. All the singers were dressed in Orchard Road day clothes, which made the verismo cautionary tale of confused woman-child Manon Lescaut, torn between virtue and vice, all the more topical given the ongoing underage sex scandal occupying local tabloids today.
Singaporean soprano Yee Ee-Ping’s elevation to status of prima donna in the titular role was an unqualified triumph. Not only does she have the vocal apparatus and pulmonary capacity to pull it off musically, her acting with a panoply of facial expressions and bodily feints was totally believable; even sympathetic, despite being blinded by bling.
Opposite her, Korean tenor Lee Jae Wook as student-in-love Des Grieux was up to his usual heroics. He nailed his aria Donna Non Vidi Mai with much earnest zest, and their duets together were easily the opera’s high points. The supporting cast led by Andrew Fernando (Manon’s brother), William Lim (Geronte) and Melvin Tan (Edmondo) were excellent for fleshing out the action and drama.
The musical theatre moved between seriousness and plain silliness so naturally, which will become a hallmark of Puccini. Witness the comical Dancing Master scene, with tenor Lemuel de la Cruz totally hamming up the gay role without so many words, before transitioning into pure sobriety as if with a flick of a switch.
Set designer Christopher Chua’s work was stark and effective, especially in the bleak Fourth Act in the arid Louisiana desert. The blood-red backdrop served to represent undying love and the scorching wilderness, and as the sun set on the affair of Manon and Des Grieux, a pall of grey descended agonisingly like a guillotine’s blade. The final duet was exactly as it was depicted - a slow and painful death.
The SLO Orchestra led by conductor Joshua Kangming Tan gave one of its best showings in a highly detailed score, the poignantly moving Intermezzo leading into Act Three was enthusiastically applauded. The marvellous chorus, augmented by 17 Filipino vocal talents (where would Singapore opera be without them?), also lent their collective weight to the proceedings.
On a worrying note, this third opera to be staged in Singapore within six weeks, was greeted with many empty seats on opening night. With Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore and John Sharpley’s Fences also playing to small houses, one ponders the future for classical opera in Singapore.
There are two more shows of Manon Lescaut on Monday and Tuesday. The quality and effort of all the artists involved should not go unrewarded.