Post-Bulletin, Rochester
Jay Furst
Massenet: Manon, Chicago, 27 September 2008
'Manon' is opera on the grandest scale
The Lyric Opera's production of "Manon," nearing the end of its run in downtown Chicago, is opera on the grandest scale -- grandiose in ambition and deeply entertaining, with dazzling talent on stage and off.

Directed by David McVicar, this production of the late Romantic classic by Jules Massenet has everything: glittery French Baroque decadence, romance, an almost verismo realism at times and surprising burlesque touches.

And it has Natalie Dessay, the reigning French queen of sopranos, who's all you might expect and more. Just as impressive is the young German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who powerfully conveys both the pleasure and torment of being smitten by Manon.

"Manon" is the story of a likable young French provincial woman, circa 1721, who simply wants what she wants. While she's not exactly sure what that is, she clearly enjoys the attention of men and "dislikes depravation," as her lover, the Chevalier des Grieux, says ruefully late in the game. Manon is sought after by men who want to buy her favors; by her cousin, who sees advantages in keeping her close; and most certainly by Des Grieux, who comes to grief because of his almost heroic love for her.

Massenet wrote "Manon" about 25 years after Verdi wrote "La Traviata," and it covers a lot of the same ground. There's no comparison, however, between the complexities of Manon and Des Grieux, and the more easily sketched lovers in Verdi's opera. McVicar and conductor Emmanuel Villaume make sure that none of the composer's subtleties are lost, and though it runs 31/2 hours, it's riveting and has an inexorable forward motion.

Dessay captures the full arc of Manon's tragic story, from innocent, fun-loving 16-year-old to depraved, fun-loving floozy. It's easy to turn "Manon" into a morality play or to romanticize her end. Just as often, stage directors give us all the glitter of Louis XV's court but none of the gritty corruption of Manon's world. McVicar's staging, with a fantastic set and costumer design by Tanya McCallin, gives us both -- glitter and glamour as well as rawness and vulgarity. The Act Four casino scene is one of the kinkiest presentations you'll see on an opera stage short of "Salome"; it drives home the point of how low Manon has fallen, though she doesn't quite know it yet.

There's no more dazzling performer in opera than Dessay, who was Lucia for the Metropolitan Opera and became the face of the Met in all its marketing last season. The Lyric might have tried the same thing with Dessay; this production is every bit as stunning as the Met's "Lucia."

It's hard to decide whether Dessay is a more phenomenal singer or actress; at times in her low range, her voice seems to lack power and character, but then she'll soar effortlessly into high, ruthlessly coloratura lines and generate such passion and volume that any doubts about her greatness are erased. Throughout, she's simply an astonishing actress. The Act Two recitative and aria, "Adieu, notre petite table," sometimes come across as insipid; with Dessay, it's profound and heartfelt, and ends with the tiny singer pitifully curled up on the "petite table."

Paired with Kauffmann, who's making his role debut as Des Grieux, Dessay is unforgettable in the Act Three duet at St.-Sulpice, where Manon tempts him away from his career as a man of the cloth. Here and throughout the production, there's a frankness and crudity regarding sex that would be considered almost pandering if it weren't for the show's more profound purposes.

Kaufmann has an attractive and affecting tone in quieter moments such as the dreamy love aria, "En fermant les yeux," but is almost shockingly effective in more forceful passages such as the casino scene where he tells Manon he inevitably loves and despises her -- which in the end we come to realize is true of Manon herself.

All the singers in major roles deserve mention here: Christopher Feigum is pitch-perfect as Lescaut, the brother no girl should have; Raymond Aceto is appropriately grave and powerful as Des Grieux's father; Jake Gardner brings forward the vital role of De Bretigny, and David Cangelosi is a fantastic Guillot, both a fop and a truly despicable character.
Photo Credit: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera Chicago

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