Manon Lescaut, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

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While one is not suggesting for a moment that life imitates art, in opera, the bad girls really do have all the fun, even if they suffer for it more exquisitely than commonfolk.

Watching Karita Mattila submerge herself in the world of luxe as if it were a romp through a supermarket of delicacies suggested that her availability was reason enough to re-introduce Puccini’s first major success to the San Francisco Opera repertoire after an 18-year absence.

Once the Finnish soprano graduates from convent-bound innocent to certified demi-mondaine, she dominates Olivier Tambosi’s sturdy production, borrowed from the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Ensconced in Frank Philipp Schlömann’s cerulean-hued apartment, Mattila revels in the pleasures and perils of avarice, suffering a dancing lesson with a mixture of tolerance and irony, applying a beauty spot as if it were a birthright.

This is not a conventionally coloured Italianate voice, but Mattila points the text with unerring dramatic instincts and rises to her key moments with searing integrity. She disappears into Manon, dispatching the farewell flat on her back, as life ebbs away.

The middle voice sounds relatively unsupported; the top flares. Tamosi surrounds Mattila with wigged grotesques who scrutinise her as if she were a bauble and gaolers who brand their female deportees, as if they were cattle. Little wonder the deserts of Louisiana don’t look so bad.

Great Chevaliers Des Grieux are the stuff of fantasy in today’s opera market, but here Ukrainian tenor Misha Didyk invests the besotted chap with an ardent, impulsive manner, expressed in a bright, coppery tenor that can seem a bit unrelenting.

Baritone John Hancock lends Lescaut a hint of diablerie. Eric Halfvarson brings a formidable bass and a wonderfully malign aspect to Geronte. Sean Panikkar, a promising tenor from the company’s training programme, makes more of Edmondo than one might have thought possible.

Donald Runnicles, music director, is determined to wring everything of value from Puccini’s score, much of it recycled from journeyman efforts. The heat emanating from the pit comes close to scorching. A lacklustre season has been, at least momentarily, redeemed.
★★★★☆
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