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In recent seasons, Chautauqua Opera (founded in 1929) has done one-off Italian-language stagings in an open-air amphitheater; this summer, general and artistic director Jay Lesenger offered Lucia di Lammermoor on July 7 with Rachelle Durkin, Gregory Carroll, Todd Thomas and Richard Bernstein under Joseph Colaneri’s baton. But the company’s historic venue is the venerable if technically limited and rather stuffy Norton Hall, the terms of bequest of which involve opera given in English. Manon Lescaut received the first of two performances on July 28 under Lesenger’s cogent, traditional direction.
Lesenger and his very solid principals — Barbara Shirvis (Manon), Robert Breault (des Grieux), Michael Chioldi (Lescaut) and Kevin Glavin (Geronte) — understood the tragic stakes of the love story and presented it in direct, visually sensible terms, with conductor James Meena clearly well versed in the idiom (though his forces blared too much in the never very amusing Amiens “hijinks” of Act I, covering the voices). The four leads delivered enjoyable, musically impressive performances, doubtless in the process imparting lessons in professionalism to CO’s Young Artists, cast in smaller and choral roles.
The dapper, light granite-voiced Chioldi and Glavin — a naturally funny actor who, unlike many buffo basses, sings with rich, unspoilt tone — could take these roles on any leading stage. Shirvis, making her local debut, and longtime CO favorite Breault didn’t look like teenagers; Shirvis’s handsome face and figure and Breault’s ardor soon made anyone who was listening forget the disparity. The soprano’s full lyric voice evokes a kind of American opera and theater-music sound (Dorothy Kirsten, Jean Fenn) we don’t hear much these days. She floated and curled it around almost all of Puccini’s multifarious demands here, even accessing some chest tones in Act IV; a few high forte notes turned hard (if still firmly on pitch). She acted and phrased (with Meena’s help) the tricky “Sola, perduta, abbondonata” with uncommon skill. Breault, with his superb command of soft dynamics and line, is better suited vocally to Massenet’s des Grieux; Puccini’s grueling version needs a “wine and sunshine” italianate quality he doesn’t possess. Sometimes one sensed an uncharacteristic straining to fill lines causing minor pitch derogations. But Breault supplied ringing climaxes and — as is his wont — phrased his music insightfully and expressively. All four leads handled the English translation pretty well, with Chioldi (and Breault when not pressed) exhibiting particularly sharp diction.
The production was attractive, with Peter Dean Beck’s evocative sets — aptly simple for the lovers’ final confrontation with Nature — plus sumptuous costumes (B. G. FitzGerald) and wigs (Georgianna Eberhard). Lesenger blocked the action well and established characters as strongly as Puccini’s still-uneven stagecraft permitted, though he enabled distracting TV-caricature performances by several inexperienced young artists; still, Ben Gulley’s cleanly produced, lyrical Edmondo, Christopher Hutchinson’s ringing Lamplighter and Ricardo Rivera’s capable Officer/Sergeant-at-Arms did accomplished work. Carol Rausch’s chorus entered into the show with gusto. Clearly moved, the audience applauded demonstratively.
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