By Pat Ciarrocchi
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — When the Opera Company of Philadelphia debuts the first of its five performances of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, audiences will see something very rare.
The soprano in the title role, Michelle Johnson, and the rest of the cast will be performing this opera for the first time.
“They call that ‘dynamic tension’ in my line of work,” says Director Michael Cavanagh.
Johnson’s experience could be called equally tense. She was named the 2011 Grand Prize Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, but learned just a month ago that the Philadelphia needed a soprano, after the singer originally cast in the role had to back out.
“It’s not only a new role for her,” says Cavanagh. “But she is new to the opera business and really emerging as a major artist.”
I talked to Cavanagh at the dress rehearsal, amidst the wires, computers and musical scores that complete the director’s desk at mid-theater. The intensity of a dress rehearsal — just four days from opening — didn’t permit time to interview Johnson. But crossing the stage in the elaborate period costumes of Manon Lescaut, Johnson’s dazzle was evident.
“People have heard of this opera,” says Cavanagh. “Core opera fans know it and love it. But the group of folks who we put together never had a chance to do it before. Which means we all have a blank slate upon which to draw, and it’s really exciting and a fascinating challenge.”
Manon Lescaut’s story revolves around wanting her heart to lead her to love, though she’s drawn to the siren call of money and the glitter that it can provide.
Director Cavanagh describes it as a story about a woman’s right to choose her own way in life. Puccini liked drawing on that theme. But the question is how much of her destiny is her own volition, and how much of it is controlled by others?
Cavanagh says that when women in particular struggle against that, society conspires against them, and inevitably, it costs them their life.
For opera newcomers, Manon Lescaut is a lush spectacle with music that can sweep over you. Though it’s in Italian, titles in English are easily read above the stage.
Performances are April 20, 22, 25, 27 & 29. For tickets, click here.