Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s first great hit, and, astonishingly, his only unequivocal triumph at its premiere. It had taken a great deal of nerve to challenge Massenet’s success with the same subject just nine years earlier, but Puccini quipped, “A woman like Manon can have more than one lover.” He was right, and, to take it a step further, she can have more than one interpreter—far more, each with something individual to offer. The episodic nature of the piece has been criticized as disjointed. Yet, it is just this quality that invites protagonistas to startle us with the heroine’s quicksilver changes of heart, and the singers’ abilities to convey them.

Operatic pioneer and San Francisco Opera founder Gaetano Merola was determined to bring first rank stars to his company, and he delivered mouth-watering casts littered with names of legend. Among the most dazzling was the company’s first Manon Lescaut, Claudia Muzio. Muzio was a diva who lived her roles. Her engagement and intensity were such that she frequently suffered bouts of physical and emotional exhaustion after performances. In a San Francisco Traviata, she clutched Teresina Monotti, who was playing Annina, trembling and crying; Muzio had become Violetta. Maestro Gino Marinuzzi was unable to look at the diva when he conducted her in Norma; the level of her involvement was too frightening. And yet, she was known for the brilliant measure of restraint in all she did. Tenor Giacomo Lauri-Volpi perhaps expressed it best when he described Muzio’s voice as “made of tears and sighs and restrained fire.”

Although she recorded only Manon’s Act II aria, “In quelle trine morbide,” circa 1917, one can hear the beauty of the voice, her famous floated piano tones (here taken all the way up to a high B-flat), and her ability to color the voice naturally. One only wishes she had documented “Sola, perduta, abbandonata,” an aria which would have showcased more her power as a singing actress. But, there is a good reason for its absence among her numerous recordings—Puccini cut the aria for a time, restoring it only in 1923 for La Scala performances commemorating the 30th anniversary of the opera’s premiere.

But one has only to turn to other Muzio renditions to imagine the degree of pathos she achieved. Her letter reading and “Addio del passato” from La Traviata is considered definitive; her “Voi lo sapete” from Cavalleria speaks of unbearable anguish expressed through intense legato and textual incisiveness. A slightly veiled quality to her timbre creates the sensation that there is even more passion brewing within.

The season of 1926, in which Muzio brought her Manon Lescaut to San Francisco, coincided with what is considered her absolute prime. The reviews were ecstatic, running out of superlatives for both her singing and acting. And while she was in town, the enterprising Merola had her appear as well in Aïda, La Bohème, Tosca, and Il Trovatore, all within the space of nine days! Six years later, Muzio was selected to open the War Memorial Opera House, in 1932. She chose one of her other signature roles, Tosca. The first act was broadcast and, even through the primitive sonics of an existing recording, one hears a Puccini singer of supreme greatness.

Muzio is a hard act to follow, but that task fell to Frances Peralta, San Francisco’s next Manon Lescaut the following season. Born in Manchester, England as Phyllis Partington, Peralta’s family emigrated to California when she was a child. After a successful stint in comic opera in New York, the soprano traveled to Europe to study, returning to the States for appearances in St. Louis and Chicago, before landing a contract with the Met, with whom she sang from 1921–1930. Although perhaps not inspiring the raves received by Muzio, Peralta’s Manon fared well with the critics. The Chronicle admired her “clever impersonation and good singing,” taking exception only to the quality of a few very high notes. The Examiner’s Redfern Mason, reserved at first, was won over, declaring that Peralta’s Manon “appealed to more hearts than [just] that of Des Grieux.” Sadly, the year of her Manon Lescaut, Peralta was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 1933 at age 50.

San Francisco had to wait more than two decades for Puccini’s early masterpiece to return, but when it did, in 1949, it arrived in style, with Licia Albanese and Jussi Björling in the leading roles. Albanese shared with Muzio a total belief in every word and note she uttered. And despite a reliable technique that took her to a rock-solid high D-flat, Albanese’s voice possessed an innate quality of fragility that made her, as the Chronicle critic noted, “probably the world’s greatest interpreter of pathetic lyric roles like Manon Lescaut.” Her strength was in honesty of delivery rather than vocal effects; in Manon’s death scene, Albanese’s combination of heartbreaking frailty and powerful desperation was expressed with a directness that both moved and terrified the observer. She brought these qualities to San Francisco over her 17 seasons. Those of us fortunate enough to see Albanese on stage, felt as if we were peeking through a keyhole at a previous generation of singers, getting a glimpse of an about-to-be-lost style.

Another diva devoting herself to Puccini’s ladies was Dorothy Kirsten. An American product, Kirsten found her way to opera through pop singing on the radio, and subsequent study financed by opera and movie star Grace Moore, who saw Dorothy as her successor. The decision to focus her lyric soprano on the heroines of Puccini came partly out of Kirsten’s affinity for his music, and partly as a way of branding her image as a prima donna. Kirsten was a fascinating combination of old-school diva (obsessed with glamor) and contemporary singing actress (analyzing her characters in modern psychological language). Fiercely intelligent, driven, and thorough, Kirsten was also ultra-careful about protecting her silvery vocal instrument, using the word “no” liberally when offered roles outside her Puccini five: Mimì, Butterfly, Manon, Tosca and Minnie (La Fanciulla del West). Her Manon Lescaut, which reached San Francisco in 1950 and again in ’56 and ’67 was found by some critics to be a bit cool. But San Francisco audiences loved the soprano. She opened the season six times over a quarter-century, having become a household name through decades of radio and television appearances, as well as film—most notably opposite Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso. Although her rather put-together image garnered some criticism for a certain lack of spontaneity, Kirsten was tirelessly devoted to quality in her performances, and brought out the best in several generations of tenors.

Another American diva and San Francisco favorite, Leontyne Price, introduced her Manon to the city in 1974. A supreme Verdi soprano, whose forays into Puccini included Butterfly, Liù, and Giorgetta (Il Tabarro), Manon seemed like a less than ideal vehicle for what critic Alexander Fried termed this “mature, stately figure.” However, Robert Commanday in the Chronicle felt that Price “delivered the goods,” with her radiant singing as well as a new level of character development for this artist. While Price may have been a bit static as the naïve, young Manon, in the second act she romped about the stage, enjoying Manon’s play-acting for her admirers, getting some laughs, and spinning out an elegant line in the faux Baroque arietta “L’ora o Tirsi,” crowning it with an endless high C. If Price’s lush instrument was a bit smoky for the delicate moments of the death scene, she nonetheless gave it her considerable all, to moving effect.

Mirella Freni seemed to be turning a corner with her Manon in 1983, as the soprano approached the later phase of her career with a new-found no-holds-barred dramatic conviction. Always vocally sublime, but sometimes careful and reserved, Freni now dug into the character’s text and vocal line with added intensity, more use of chest voice, and textual variety. The result was a Manon authentically Italianate, and unfailingly persuasive through all four acts. Her “In quelle trine morbide” was a revelation, bringing down the house, and the diva sustained this pitch of excitement right through to the death scene.

1988 found the Spanish Mozart soprano Pilar Lorengar offering a late-career Manon that was found to be somewhat lacking dramatically, visually, and, in the lower reaches, vocally. But Manon’s 21st century history at San Francisco Opera began with a bang with the colorful impersonation of Finnish soprano Karita Mattila. Mattila began her career as a tall, attractive young woman with a lovely voice and developed into one of the era’s great singing actresses. It is no wonder that this soprano stressed the theatrical side of the character. Those looking for the Italian style of an Albanese or Freni, had to look elsewhere. But Mattila brought a highly individual interpretation, subdued but simmering in the first act, wild and eccentric in the second act dance lesson—she capped “L’ora o Tirsi” not only with a high C, but a gymnastic split!—building to a shattering death scene, “Sola, perduta” sung on the stage floor, her body contorting from physical exhaustion and emotional desperation.

So many ways to approach a role with various possibilities! And now Lianna Haroutounian joins the list of illustrious predecessors who’ve given San Francisco Opera remarkably different takes on Puccini’s mercurial heroine.