Tag Archives: Nicola Luisotti

San Francisco Opera’s Manon Lescaut: Heartbreaking, Breathtaking Music

Tonight, 11/26, is (now “was”) this season’s last performance of Puccini’s first masterpiece, Manon Lescaut, at the San Francisco Opera. It puts the “Grand” in its rightful place in “Grand Opera.” The Hedgehogs attended the matinee, Sunday, November 24, and still think about it, hear it and see it in the minds’ eyes and ears. All of the performers were eye opening and heart rending in their characterizations and superb voices. The leads, Lianna Haroutounian, as Manon, and Brian Jagde, as Des Grieux, both made their role debuts. They were stellar. Ms Haroutounian captures the pathos, silliness, beauty, and tragedy in Manon while fulfilling all that Pucinni could desire through her voice. Mr. Jagde is ardent, naive, and heroic with a soaring voice and powerful presence.

Manon Lescaut (Lianna Haroutounian) meets Chevalier Des Grieux (Brian Jagde).

Brian Jagde

The Conductor was the first reason we chose to see this opera. Nicola Luisotti was SFO’s Music Director, 2009-2018. He is such an appealing artist: full of energy, radiating the joy of being in music, and able to summon the greatest music from his instrument, the SF Opera Orchestra. They made the music shimmer, explode, and embrace the voices. It was an extraordinary range of music and one felt as though Puccini was being channeled through Luisotti.

Nicola Luisotti,Conductor, principal guest conductor at Madrid’s Teatro Real, recently conducted La Traviata, Aida, and Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera, La Forza del Destino at the Paris Opera, Il Trovatore at Milan’s La Scala

The story follows Manon from her arrival at a coach stop on her way to enter a convent to her death on the desert plain of Louisiana. (A program note reminds us that in 1731 when Abbe Prevost wrote the novel, Louisiana could refer to the whole Territory, not only to the swampy, hurricane prone state.) Chevalier Des Grieux falls in love with her on the spot. He invites her to stay with him. The innkeeper helps them escape because just a few minutes earlier he had arranged with Manon’s brother, Lescaut, to help Geronte de Ravoir carry her off to seduce her. This “seduce” is a euphemism for “rape.”

Anthony Clark Evans (L) was Lescaut; (R)Philip Skinner as Geronte de Revoir. Both were totally believable as they embodied their roles and created their complex characters through vocal power.

Lescaut first appears to be a bad brother. He is willing to help a wealthy rake abscond with his sister for the prestige and money to be gained. Later, he realizes his sister is terribly unhappy and yearns for the peaceful love she experienced with Des Grieux in their cottage. In Act II, he runs to tell Des Grieux to come to Manon at Geronte’s palace. Manon has indulged in jewelry and fashion but still loves Des Grieux. They decide to run away together. Lescaut will help, but Manon wants to take her jewels with her. In the minutes she spends scooping up pearls, Geronte and his guards capture them. Another plan goes astray as Manon, in prison wearing rags, awaits being branded and shipped off to the New World. Des Grieux demands to be shipped away with his love and other convicts.

Lianna Haroutounian, Manon, dances a minuet as Geronte and friends look on. Zhengyi Bai is the Dancing Master (above center).

As we near the year 2020, the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the USA, it is impossible not to notice Manon’s plight. A bit of a nit wit, she is also a teenager with no sign of education in a society with few alternatives for females. The convent. A financially secure marriage. Although women appear in the opening market scene and in Manon’s boudoir, Manon is the only named female character in the opera. There is no female friend, relative or rival. She is alone at the stag party that is her world. She introduces herself saying that her father dictated her fate. Through time, her life is molded by her brother, by Geronte, less so by Des Grieux, and quite a bit by her inexperience and ignorance. A painful moment for the audience came in seeing her dance a minuet for an audience brought together by Geronte. Bewigged older men watch her. She thinks she is dancing beautifully and proudly in her gorgeous gown. From the view of the rakes, she is a delectable performing monkey exciting their desires.

Brian Jagde, as Des Grieux, Lianna Haroutounian, as Manon, face death in the New World.

The lovers’ ends are inevitable. Their last acts show them wandering alone on a desert without food, water, or a sense of where they are. One line explains that they ran away from the others so that they would not be separated. Life: as Tina Turner’s song states, What’s love got to do with it? Better not to consider if she would have been happier safe in the convent. Abbe Prevost’s novel was immediately banned by the French. Even now there is a lot to object to in the story, though our objections come from other issues. As an opera, Manon defines the genre.

Photos courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. Brian Jagde by Liesl Kundert, Nicola Luisotti by John Martin, Antony Clark Evans by Simon Pauley, Philip Skinner unattributed, all scenes from the opera by Corey Weaver.



Luisotti, Verdi, Don Carlo: Opera Greatness in San Francisco

VerdiThe San Francisco Opera presented Don Carlo, Giuseppi Verdi’s tragic masterpiece of political and personal puzzles, June 29. It was beautiful and terrifying. Led by SF Opera Music Director Conductor Nicola Luisotti, the performance went to the heart of Verdi’s great music and captured the hearts of the audience.

MichaelFabiano Special excitement in this Don Carlo was seeing two leads in role debuts. Michael Fabiano, American tenor, made an impressive debut as Don Carlo. He had critical and audience praise for his Rudolfo in SF Opera’s Luisa Miller, fall, 2015. In addition to leading roles from Paris to New York, in 2014 he won the Richard Tucker and Beverly Sills Awards. Ana Maria Martinez made her debut as Elisabetta, Don Carlo’s beloved who married the King, Don Carlo’s father. She has sung starring roles for the SF Opera: Pamina in Die Zauberflote, 2003, and Micaela in Carmen, 2006, Amelia Grimaldi in Simon Boccanegra, 2008. She has starred in productions at the Met in NYC, Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and through Europe.


Ms Martinez excelled at portraying the agonizing sadness of the young woman who becomes Queen and must choose between duty and personal feelings. This is a constant theme of the opera showing public, political struggles and the interior, personal struggles faced by players in the games of state. The opera is set at a time when the Spanish Inquisition is the face and power of the Catholic Church and the political Church has out-maneuvered the ambitions of the state. While Spain is killing people in Flanders, “defending the Faith” by destroying the country in the newly Protestant Low Countries, the Church rules by the Inquisition’s terror.


Nadia Krasteva, Bulgarian mezzo, in her debut with the SF Opera, was outstanding in her role as Princess Eboli. In love with Don Carlo, she defames him and the Queen, hoping to catch him as he falls. From her first appearance, singing in the Queen’s garden, one feels she makes schemes even as she dances. Ms Krasteva was so good at being bad, a female Iago who regrets too late.

mariuszzKwiecien  Mariusz Kwiecien as Rodrigo, Don Carlo’s devoted friend, was the soul of the opera. His voice was true, strong and beautiful. His optimistic proclamation of allegiance to liberty may reflect part of Verdi’s own hopes. Mr. Kwiecien, a Polish baritone, was superb. His character gives the audience someone to admire without equivocation, and yet, in this atmosphere of dread, he is doomed.


When Rodrigo dies, something of Verdi dies, too. Associated with the Risorgimento movement in Italy, Verdi loved not only Italy, but also the ideals of the Rights of Man (we may take “man”  to mean the rights of Humanity). At the request of Prime Minister Cavour, the leader of the Italian unification movement, Verdi was a member of Parliament. When he died, in 1901, a quarter of a million Italians went into the streets, marching to the music of the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco, conducted by Toscanini. June 29 was perhaps the third time this Verdi fan had seen Don Carlo. So much can depend upon the time in which one sees it. The second time was a different era in the US.* Either what the directors chose to emphasize or what I felt most was the struggle for freedom against the totalitarian weight of the political, murderous Church and the murderous State. There was endless conniving, spying, and absence of respect for human life. This time, I absorbed the hopelessness of individuals striving for change and the loss of private lives. Perhaps the directors found more truth in cynicism in this election year.

Ferruccio Furlanetto-S

Ferruccio Fulanetto sang the role of Philip II. He was superb. Rodrigo asks the King to end the Flanders war. The King decides he can trust Rodrigo. When Mr. Fulanetto warned Rodrigo to beware the Inquisition, it was one of the most terrifying moments of theater I can remember. In excellent voice, Mr. Fulanetto’s King Philip is in a position of supreme power and yet suspicious of his wife and overwhelmed by the Inquisition’s reign of terror. Exiting to the so-called real world in the first intermission, I could not shake the feeling of fear.

nicola_0082-M  Nicola Luisotti announced his depature from leadership of the SF Opera. Lovers of Verdi should plan ahead: Maestro Luisotti will conduct Aida, Nov.5-Dec. 6, 2016, and Rigoletto, May 31-July 1, 2017. These performances are an opportunity to cheer him for the joy in music he has brought to San Francisco. Photos, except the unattributed portrait of Verdi at the top, are all ©Cory Weaver/SF Opera.  *I first saw Don Carlo in a school group. We went to the Paris Opera. Seats were too expensive; we took turns going in a box. I do not think I knew the story. It didn’t matter. The gorgeous setting, beautiful voices, enormous bouquets all added up to dazzling Theater, an impact like the first time one sees a mountain.