OPERA REVIEW : S.F. Musters a Somnolent ‘Manon Lescaut’

Times Music Critic

Terence McEwen may have left his post as general director of the San Francisco Opera. But his legacy lingers on.

It wasn’t much of a legacy Wednesday night at the War Memorial Opera House.

The vehicle was Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.” Despite its gutsy verismo compulsion, it needs all the help it can get.

The cardboard-kitsch sets, cranked out by Allen Charles Klein for Dallas in 1979, resembled a jumble of bargain-basement cliches. The hand-me-down costumes, attributed to Walter Mahoney, looked like the result of an indiscriminate raid on several warehouses.


Still, San Francisco has triumphed over worse theatrical grab bags in the past. With just a little musical inspiration, all might not have been lost.

No such luck.

For the crucial title role--the role of the charismatic teen-age temptress with the heart of copper--McEwen chose one of his most beloved old cronettes, Pilar Lorengar. This turned out to be one of his most sentimental, most dangerous and most bizarre parting gestures.

To conduct this opera of seething eroticism and turbulent Latin passions, McEwen turned to Sir John Pritchard. A gentleman noted for his expressive restraint, he tends to get through an opera beating time dutifully, though sometimes erratically, with his face buried in the score.


Under the circumstances, aficionados expected the worst. As a kind fate would have it, however, they didn’t get the worst. They just got another dull approximation of Puccini’s blood, tears and thunder.

At 60, Lorengar could not muster a great deal of power, vocal sensuality or physical allure. Come to think of it, she couldn’t muster much at 50 either.

Nevertheless, she did sing on this occasion with abiding taste and discretion. Once in a while, when the pressure wasn’t great and the tone wasn’t too breathy or fluttery, she actually managed phrases of gleaming impact and stylish authority. Prima donna to the last, she did her respectable, nostalgic best against cruel odds.

Pritchard, on the other hand, seemed content to work on automatic pilot. Apparently aiming for little beyond somnolent efficiency, he steadfastly kept the musical temperature low.

This made life rather difficult for Peter Dvorsky, the one member of the cast who seemed interested in dramatic urgency. The Czechoslovakian tenor from Vienna commands vibrant lirico-spinto resources. His voice has grown in size and darkened in color over the years, and he applied it to the Italianate challenge with artful aplomb.

Here was a hero who could phrase his flirtatious entrance aria with elegant charm yet ring the rafters in his desperate plea to join Manon in banishment. He even could float a few dulcet pianissimo tones in the death scene. It would be nice to encounter him again in a more auspicious setting.

The supporting cast proved generally undistinguished. Marcel Vanaud, remembered for a forgettable Figaro in Santa Fe, came all the way from Brussels to introduce a forgettable Lescaut. Only Renato Capecchi, the crusty old Geronte, demonstrated a genuine sense of interpretive focus.

Grischa Asagaroff was listed as stage director. He directed the traffic with picturesque routine.


Many in the non-capacity audience applauded politely. Others dozed peacefully.