Lyric Opera founder Carol Fox was so enamored of everything Italian that the company’s nickname used to be “La Scala West.” The repertoire remains Italian-centered (Lyric used its revival of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle as an excuse to bypass Richard Strauss for several seasons) but it says a lot about how much times have changed that Lyric’s first production of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” in nearly three decades has a Finnish soprano and Russian tenor in the leading roles. On paper, it looked great: two operatic luminaries sharing the stage, and though Karita Mattila and Vladimir Galouzine each have impressive vocal instruments, they are no match for one another in any way, shape or form. Mattila’s voice is sweet and medium-sized, Galouzine’s is dark and voluminous; Mattila is tall and slender, and despite making every effort to slouch, she is distractingly taller than the short, stocky and balding Galouzine. Indeed, one would expect by appearance alone for Galouzine to assume the role of the older lover who is able to seduce Manon with riches. Both make the best of an awkward situation and static staging and do their best to blend. Thankfully, the opportunity to hear this first major Puccini success rather than another “Butterfly” or “Boheme” makes the evening work, enhanced by beautiful and refreshingly three-dimensional sets in a cost-conscious age and the welcome return of Lyric’s artistic director emeritus Bruno Bartoletti to coax an Italianate orchestral sonority out of the orchestra so long associated with him. (Dennis Polkow).
Through Dec. 3, Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive at Madison; (312) 332-2244.