Associated Press, September 28, 2008
Massenet: Manon, Chicago, 27 September 2008
Lyric Opera of Chicago opens season with 'Manon'
How so much voice — and so much emotional force — can pour out of a person as tiny as Natalie Dessay should be one of the great mysteries of the opera world.

The much-in-demand French soprano compounded that mystery Saturday when she kicked off the 2008-09 season of Lyric Opera of Chicago as the title character in Jules Massenet's 1884 "Manon."

Dessay easily held the audience in the palm of one very petite hand, from the moment she stepped on stage in Act 1 as a convent-bound provincial girl until her Act 5 death as a prisoner about to be deported to America for immorality. At various points in between, she was a runaway young lover, a rich man's plaything in Paris and the seductress of an about-to-be ordained priest — right in the church, no less.

And throughout the story, Dessay stayed true to her concept of the character, whom she sees not as the femme fatale portrayed by many other sopranos, but as a typical teenager — willful and a bit confused.

Dessay was already working as an actress when she first learned she had a singing voice, and it's a tribute to her dramatic skills that, at 43, she can so convincingly play a teenager. It doesn't hurt, either, that she has the body of an Olympic gymnast.

Best known for her comic roles, Dessay came only recently to the pathos of "Manon," but her previous performances in the role, at Geneva and Barcelona, Spain, were greatly acclaimed. Chicago should prove no different, particularly because she is a perfect fit for the production that director David McVicar originally created for the English National Opera and reprised in Barcelona last year, with Dessay starring.

McVicar depicts 1720s France as a seedy sort of place, with only Manon and her young true love, the Chevalier des Grieux (sung by German tenor Jonas Kaufmann) managing to escape the overall atmosphere of cynicism, drunkenness and dinginess.

Kaufmann is a fine partner for Dessay, handsome enough to make their love at first sight convincing and strong enough vocally to blend with her, particularly in their Act 1 and Act 2 duets ("Et je sais votre nom" and "On l'appelle Manon") and in the Act 3 seduction scene in the Church of St. Sulpice.

The two leads make their playful and doomed young love so palpable that Dessay has no problem in making her farewell to the humble furnishings of their Paris apartment ("Adieu, notre petite table") an emotional highlight of the opera.

The other principals are also effective. American baritone Christopher Feigum truly seems drunk most of the time as Manon's cousin Lescaut, a gambling-addicted lout who precipitates much of the tragedy and encounters his own conscience only in the sad final scene. Another American baritone, Jake Gardner, has a fine voice and effectively shows the moral and romantic ambiguity of the aristocrat De Bretigny, who keeps Manon as his mistress for a time.

As the unsympathetic father, the Count des Grieux, American bass Raymond Aceto has relatively little to do, but he does it with undeniable authority.

Special mention should go to character tenor David Cangelosi, who has the opera's most nearly villainous role, that of aging aristocrat and would-be dirty old man Guillot de Morfontaine. With his red suit and shoulder-length white wig, Cangelosi's Guillot is a ridiculous elderly fop who never quite manages to buy Manon — or any other woman, for that matter.

The Lyric orchestra for the current production is under the baton of French conductor Emmanuel Villaume. There are 10 more performances, the last on Oct. 31.

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