, 29 September 2008
James L Zychowicz
Manon, Chicago, 27 September 2008
Review: Manon/Lyric Opera
An auspicious opening gala, Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Massenet's Manon offered a festival-quality performance of this familiar opera. The international cast involved with this production brought new life to this work, which has been perennially popular since its premiere over a century ago. At the core of Massenet's Manon are the title character and her lover, the Chevalier des Grieux. Tracing her lifelong infatuation with Des Grieux, the libretto by Meilhac and Gille is a valiant dramatization of Prévost's famous novel about the moral decline and spiritual redemption of an archetype courtesan of the eighteenth century. The irony of a young girl destined for the convent to run off with the youthful Des Grieux is matched only by the reversal of character in Manon's continual search for worldly pleasures, only to realize the value of priceless love when she is dying : in setting this story Massenet found a way to allow the title character's changing personality to emerge clearly within the five acts of this work. As the young Manon essentially opens her eyes to the sensual world around her in the opening, her aria "Voyons, Manon" is the fine expression of the character's openness to a world denied to her implicitly as a result of her tender age or provincial upbringing. Yet when opportunity arrives in the persona of the lecherous Guillot, Manon quickly learns how to thwart the man at his own game and to pursue her own pleasure at his expense - she uses his carriage as the vehicle for her escape with Des Grieux. Such action would be difficult to translate to the stage in a spoken drama, and it is Massenet's enduring music that makes this sometimes extraordinary narrative work well.

As Manon, the internationally acclaimed French soprano Natalie Dessay revealed character flawlessly -using the somewhat draping costume designated for Manon in the first act, to convey her youthfulness but with understatement at the core of this part of the work. The only weakness in the libretto and this production is the speed of the attraction that brings Des Grieux and Manon together. Taken literally, the libretto moves to this point all too quickly, and the music helps to bring some proper pacing to the scene. Even so, McVicar's production, originally conceived for English National Opera, does not always allow for sufficient eye contact or preliminaries to make this work well. Manon and Des Grieux must express the bond that allows their relationship to withstand the fickleness of the courtesan's vain pursuits. Dessay gave a sense of conflicting emotions by appearing distracted in the second act as Des Grieux expresses his dream to Manon. Yet her reverie about her affair with Des Grieux, with its repeated references to their "petite table," conveyed a sense that the infatuation has grown into something more lasting, even though the mood is quickly interrupted by Des Grieux's sudden and jarring abduction.

Likewise, Dessay gave the Manon's third-act entrance "Je marche sur tous les chemins" the appropriate bravura, and if her character was somewhat restrained earlier in the work, she was overtly confident in this scene. With the famous gavotte ("Obéissons quand leur voix appelle") which follows, Manon expresses her outward purpose in life in the opera's most famous number. The audience responded perhaps too well to this scene, which often elicits applause while the piece continues. Here, Dessay was in her element: she describes herself as a singing actress, after all.

This characterization was well matched well by the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann's Des Grieux. If he was somewhat tentative in the first act, he was very convincing in the second act and even more impressive in the third, where the second scene requires him to match Manon's intensity and yet resist it passionately. Massenet's Des Grieux is a demanding role, with sustained passages in both the lower and upper registers, and Kaufmann commanded the role very capably. At the end, Des Grieux duet with Manon becomes the soliloquy with which the opera ends, like the narrator's voice at the end of the Prévost's novel.

Along with these two principals, David Cangelosi brought consistency to the role of the vengeful Guillot, whose scorn brings about the fall of the Manon and Des Grieux. Adept at character roles at Lyric Opera and elsewhere, Cangelosi made Guillot come to life fully within the idiom of this work. As Manon's cousin, Christopher Feigum offered a fine portrayal of Lescaut, who is also seduced by the attractions of Paris. The young American baritone was vocally solid in this important role in this work.

These and the other singers involved were part of David McVicar's innovative staging that brought a self-referential design to the set. The tiers of seats backstage allowed for a convenient space for the chorus, dancers, and supernumeraries to enter and exit easily. This element worked smoothly in the first and third acts, but was disconcerting in the more intimate setting of the second. McVicar's production also introduces Hogarth-like details into the bigger scenes, with the elements of lowlife depicted in visual counterpoint to the action among the principal characters. This sometimes drew attention away from the deserving characters of the younger and elder Des Grieux, as well as from Manon, whose persona needs to dominate the stage. The conductor Emmanuel Villaume allowed the orchestra to overbalance the voices at times but for the most part Villaume brought a sense of musical continuity to the score, which also involved explicit ballet scenes to enhance the production. The innovative use of movement went beyond the sometimes perfunctory inclusion of dance, and suggested, too, that other productions could usefully involve dancers, given the rhythms that pervade the score.

All in all, this production was a fine way to open the new season. McVicar's innovative production provided an opportunity to see and hear Manon with fresh eyes and ears and the charms and emotions of Massenet's fine score made an inviting introduction to the rest of 2008/9.
Photo: Keith Hale/Sun-Times

 back top