Manon Lescaut demands two great artists in the two lead roles. No other opera of Puccini, except possibly Madama Butterfly, concentrates so heavily on two principals, and both are very difficult to cast. Des Grieux should be dashing, with a strong voice, a great top and lots of power to get through an orchestra that is close to Wagnerian. It's not Wagnerian in size, but there is plenty of doubling of instruments with the voice that makes it harder for any singer to pierce the sound. Jay Hunter Morris in the first cast and Ted Lee in the second fill that bill ideally.
The title character demands even more. I had wanted to present Manon Lescaut for some time, but no soprano seemed ideal for the role. In order to sing it she must have a voice that ranges up to a high C with a good low register as well. Almost more important, the soprano has to have a lot of what the Italians call squillo—the thrust that carries the voice through the orchestra. Once past these vocal requirements, which also include a comprehension of the verismo style, the critical element to portray Manon is glamour. Manon, as a character, begins as a young, flirtatious woman, becomes a passionate young woman, then a more mature, sadder character, and finally a broken woman, full of desire to live until she collapses in death. Through all her vicissitudes, she must maintain the ability to fascinate her audience. It's a very hard role vocally and dramatically, and in the last 25 years has had few great exponents.
When I was planning this season, it occurred to me that Carol Vaness fit the bill to give Seattle it's first Manon Lescaut since 1981. Long a favorite here, who made her debut at Seattle Opera as the very different role of Massenet's Manon, in 1985, Carol struck me as ready to sing this challenging role. When I asked her, she said that it was a role she had for some time longed to do, had looked for one, and couldn't wait to sing it. A second Manon Lescaut turned up in the person of Victoria Litherland. She had sung the role with several American companies. Her audition proved her ability to sing the part, and her record convinced me that she could portray the character with great success. With a great conductor, Antonello Allemandi, in the pit, and Bernard Uzan directing, it should be an exciting performance of Puccini's first success.