By Lawrence Budmen

Giacomo Pucciniís Manon Lescaut was the Italian operatic masterís first great success. It remains his most passionate, deeply felt work. Setting a familiar novel by Prevost that has provided inspiration for scores of composers, Puccini summoned a passionate, dramatic lyricism that changed the musical face of Italian opera. While there were musico-dramatic flaws in Florida Grand Operaís production, much of Pucciniís soaring music came vibrantly alive on January 31 at the Carnival Centerís Ziff Opera House. 

Veteran conductor Angelo Cavallaro led the Florida Classical Orchestra in a performance of unwavering power and intensity. Cavallaroís idiomatic leadership infused the entire cast with true Puccinian passion and drama. The beautiful Intermezzo (which opens Act III) soared on wings of silky ecstasy under Cavallaroís baton. The rich, deep tones of Iris Van Eckís cello and the amber timbre of Scott Flavinís violin waxed poignantly in this orchestral vignette. Cavallaro and his musicians received the ovation of the evening. 

While Michel Beaulacís sets and costumes were attractive in a traditional manner, Bernard Uzanís direction was fussy, often failing to coherently present key dramatic moments. Some of Uzanís blocking was musically disadvantageous for the singers. Guy Simardís lighting was surprisingly ineffective. 

In the title role Sylvie Valayre was glamour personified. The French sopranoís darkly colored; dusky timbre and edgy upper register did not always fill Pucciniís radiant lyrical lines. But her portrayal of this tragic heroine was deeply affecting and she brought impassioned fervor to Manonís death scene in the wilderness of Louisiana. 

In a role once championed by Bjoerling, Tucker, Domingo, and Carreras, Hugh Smith unleashed a large tenor voice that tended to strain at high notes. He sang at an over hyped, unrelenting forte. Smith cut a decidedly unromantic figure as Des Grieux. When the music and drama turned tragic, he was not wanting for intense declamation.

David Kempster cut an oily figure as Lescaut, not aided by a rather ordinary baritone voice. As Geronte, the superb character bass Donato di Stefano brought a modicum of dignity to a role often played in buffoonish fashion. Joseph Michael Muir was merely adequate as Edmondo, a role that can be a scene stealer. Douglas Perry commanded the stage in a cameo as the Dancing Master.

This Manon Lescaut was far more than the sum of its components. Thanks to Cavallaroís inspired conducting and Valayreís intense vocalism, the production was deeply moving Ė a tribute to the youthful genius of Puccini. 

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