CHAUTAUQUA - Once again, Chautauqua Opera has found the dramatic core of an infrequently performed opera, and shown us why it has survived for centuries.
''Manon Lescaut'' was Puccini's first success. While it may not have the sustained grandeur of ''Boheme'' or ''Butterfly,'' that rich, melody, the passionate capture of overwhelming emotion, was very much present. An excellent cast and a beautifully performing orchestra made it all live for music lovers Wednesday evening in Chautauqua's Norton Hall.
The libretto is based on the novel of the same name by the Abbe Prevost. It is the story of a very young woman on her way to a convent, who is kidnapped by a handsome young lover, then later by an aging libertine. Unwilling to live without either love or a comfortable life, she ends up denounced to the police as a woman of loose morals, living with men to whom she is not married, and is sent to exile in the wilderness.
Opera is always performed in English, from Norton Hall's stage. The translation by Keith and Emma Warner, which the company is using, was often uncomfortable, and stated things awkwardly. Nonetheless, the music has such power, especially in the beautifully balanced and rich orchestral reduction by Anton Coppola, that it told Manon's story for us perfectly.
Lovely Barbara Shirvis had a golden voice, in the title role. The character is barely 18, but the requirements of the music demanding maturity and power, and somehow she managed to achieve both.
Tenor Robert Breault has come to be known at Chautauqua for a sweet and expressive voice, capable of swelling to enormous power, and his performance as des Grieux, Manon's young lover, was certainly no exception.
Michael Chioldi sang the role of Lescaut, Manon's older brother. Lescaut is often portrayed as virtually pimping his young sister to men from whom he hoped to gain material wealth, but Chioldi gave him an arc, progressing like Manon, from an innocent from the country, to a person of genuine character.
Geronte, the wealthy tax collector who tempts Manon to become his mistress with jewels and luxury, similarly was given an arc. Still a self-centered blowhard, Kevin Glavin made Geronte a person of delicate ego, who knows he has little to offer but wealth, and who is stung to the core when even his money is laughed at.
Director Jay Lesenger has brought together top artists into a small production on a small stage, which had much the power of a production at a major international house.
''Manon Lescaut'' was reviewed in dress rehearsal, at company request. Some conductors tend to treat dress rehearsals as though they were performances. James Meena was rehearsing, all the way through, and the Chautauqua Opera Orchestra was responding sharply to his demands, and giving a lush and dramatic reading of the score which could only delight listeners.
A simple but beautiful set by Peter Dean Beck, sensitive lighting by Michael Baumgartner, historically effective costumes by B.G. Fitzgerald all came together to produce a thrilling evening of opera.
The opera officially debuts Friday evening, and repeats once, on Monday evening, at Chautauqua's Norton Hall.