New roles for Racette and Meade at DC Opera
This undated handout photo provided by the Washington National Opera shows Patricia Racette as Manon Lescaut. (AP Photo/Scott Suchman, WNO)
Two American sopranos — one established, one up-and-coming — showed off their considerable talents in roles new to them at the Washington National Opera over the weekend.
On Sunday afternoon, Patricia Racette gave a moving, richly sung performance as the impetuous young beauty who becomes a courtesan and then dies in exile in Puccini's first breakout hit, "Manon Lescaut." On Friday night, Angela Meade brought her prodigious gifts to perhaps the most daunting role in the bel canto repertoire, the Druid priestess in Bellini's "Norma."
"Manon Lescaut" proved by far the more satisfying performance overall. Racette, a noted interpreter of "Madame Butterfly" and "Tosca," saved this Puccini role until now, in her late 40s. It's a deceptively difficult part because it puts strenuous demands on the soprano's voice and requires her to enact the arc of Manon's career in four short acts. Racette was perhaps least effective in the opening scene, where the soloists tended to get lost amid the bustle of the crowd. But she took firm hold in Act 2 as the kept woman of a wealthy old man, bringing glamour to her gavotte and wistful elegance to the aria "In quelle trine morbide," as she reflects on her lost love, the Chevalier des Grieux. In the final scene, her bright soprano imbued the great lament, "Sola, perduta, abandonnata," with searing emotion and exquisite control, notwithstanding some widening vibrato at the very top.
This undated handout photo provided by the Washington National Opera shows Giorgio Caoduro as Lescaut, left, and Patricia Racette as Manon Lescaut. (AP Photo/Scott Suchman, WNO)
As des Grieux, Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev offered some ringing high notes and sturdy if not plush sound in the rest of his range; Italian baritone Giorgio Caoduro etched a lively portrayal as Manon's brother, Lescaut. Philippe Auguin, the WNO's music director, conducted ably, bringing a fluid sense of pacing to Puccini's most melodious opera.
The production by John Pascoe, new in 2004, frames the story with a curtain-within-the-curtain that displays translated pages from the Abbe Prevost novel on which the libretto is based. It's a useful device that helps fill in the gaps in this episodic retelling of the story. The costumes and scenery are traditional, except for the final scene, where an ominous orange-and-red sky looms behind a wasteland strewn with a few large chunks of broken statuary.
Meade's stage debut as Norma carries an asterisk, since she sang it in concert at the Caramoor Music Festival in the summer of 2010. She was impressive then and now, in her mid-30s. She has grown into the role and sings it with more assurance and daring. She also showed some welcome emotional identification with the character's suffering, though there is room for her interpretation to deepen. Her vocal range and technique are awesome, especially when she's spinning out a ravishing high note.