The last act of Giacomo Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" (1893) — his first hit, which launched Minnesota Opera's new season Saturday at the Ordway — has gotten a lot of bad press. "The biggest dramatic blunder of all," declared one critic. "A single mood, a single color, no spectacle … no contrast," complained another.
Minnesota Opera's thoughtfully traditionalist staging, a remounting by Michael Cavanagh of John Pascoe's production for Washington National Opera, should quiet the naysayers. It rehabilitates the ending, situating it in a bleak dreamscape — a wilderness of the mind, strewn with broken relics of the lovers' past. This works.
A second innovation is less successful. The production tackles the narrative discontinuities in "Manon," filling gaps in the action by projecting onto the stage, via a sort of 18th-century Kindle, pertinent stretches of the 1731 novella by Antoine-François Prévost from which the libretto was laboriously derived.
This feels superfluous. The surge and beauty of Puccini's music drive "Manon" to its tragic end without recourse to program notes. All the hallmarks of the composer's later style — his unique blend of Wagnerian musical architecture and Italian tunefulness, the warmth and sparkle of his orchestra, the rapid pacing, the easy conversational flow — are already here, without melodramatic excess. The score is masterly, and at moments magical.
Saturday's performance rocked. Abetted by Pascoe's costumes, Heidi Spesard-Noble's choreography, and Jason Allen's wigs and makeup, Kelly Kaduce (a product of Winnebago, Minn.) was brilliant in the title role. Part lovebird, part gold digger, the too-beautiful Manon is the first of Puccini's complex heroines — spirited, sensual, conflicted, narcissistic. Kaduce, her voice at once silken and steely, embraces that complexity. In Act 2, she commands the stage. Her death scene is affecting.
As the hapless des Grieux, Manon's fervid lover, Dinyar Vania is that rare thing: a tasteful tenor. Vania has the vocal heft and musical intelligence the role requires — not to mention an imposing physique. But too often he pushes where he ought to soar, and his chemistry with Kaduce seems fitful.
John Robert Lindsey (Edmondo) and Matthew Opitz (Lescaut, Manon's calculating brother) sing vividly. Andrew Wilkowske, displaying a gift for physical comedy, makes a fittingly fatuous Geronte.
The orchestra, 60 strong, glowed under music director Michael Christie, who deftly balanced propulsion and reflection.
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.