NEW YORK >> Roberto Alagna says he always makes a point of stepping forward after a performance to shake hands with the prompter. Never has he had more reason than in his current run of "Manon Lescaut" at the Metropolitan Opera.
When tenor Jonas Kaufmann announced he was canceling because of illness less than three weeks before opening night, the Met turned to Alagna to star in Puccini's opera as the Chevalier des Grieux, a student who falls hopelessly in love with the flirtatious Manon.
Only one problem: Alagna had never sung the role.
"I read the score 10 years ago for a project in Torino," he said during an interview in his dressing room after a performance. "But I didn't really know it, and I never sang it." An operation to remove a sinus tumor forced him to pull out of that production.
Once he signed on this time, he had four 12-hour days of studying, then five days working with the cast, including soprano Kristine Opolais in the title role, conductor Fabio Luisi and director Richard Eyre. "The dress rehearsal was the first time I sang the entire piece," he said.
So on opening night he was especially grateful to prompter Joan Dornemann, who sits invisible to the audience in a box at the front and center of the stage to help soloists with words or musical entrances they might forget.
"In opera we are all the time shaking hands with everybody — the tuba player, the chorus director, the guy who sings just one line," Alagna said. "But sometimes we forget about this person sitting there between us and the conductor and doing a very important job."
Now that he's sung the role several times, he's looking forward to the HD broadcast Saturday afternoon.
"At the beginning," he said, "I was thinking only, 'Now I have to do this, what is the word, what is the rhythm?' I thought I would die singing this part, but now I'm happy because it's starting to be in me, in my throat, in my legs, in my soul."
Puccini's opera, which premiered in 1893, is one of several musical adaptations of a short novel by Abbe Prevost published in 1731 and titled "L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut."
A version by French composer Jules Massenet and titled simply, "Manon," premiered nine years before Puccini's opera and is still frequently performed today.
Alagna said now that he has added the Puccini work to his repertory he'd love to sing both, "perhaps one after the other. They're very different, but at the same time it's the same story. It would be very interesting to do it with the same singers."
In the novel and the Puccini opera (though not in Massenet's version), the beautiful Manon dies of thirst and exhaustion after being deported to America as a prostitute and winding up in a mythical wilderness or desert outside New Orleans. The Met's production updates the action to World War II-era France, and for the last scene set designer Rob Howell has created a symbolic wasteland, littered with chunks of concrete from previous sets.
It looks treacherous for the performers to negotiate while singing their hearts out, and Alagna said it does pose challenges. "It's true, it's quite difficult," he said. "When you walk just a little bit you get out of breath, there's no place to put your feet, it's very high.
"Thank God we are young," the 52-year-old tenor added with a laugh.
LIVE IN HD
What: The Metropolitan Opera — Puccini's "Manon Lescaut"
When: Saturday afternoon at 1 (encore March 16)
Running time: 3 hours 8 minutes
Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington; Beacon Cinema, 57 North St., Pittsfield
Tickets: Mahaiwe (reserved seating) — $25 ($18 for students under 13). Beacon Cinema (general admission) — $25