Monday, November 06, 2017

Massenet's Manon at SF Opera

San Francisco Opera unveiled a surprisingly good new production of Massenet's 1884 opera Manon on Saturday evening. It was surprising because I am not a big fan of 19th century French operas other than those written by Berlioz or Italians (Rossini's Guillaume Tell or Verdi's Don Carlos, for instance), and I have walked out of two productions of Manon at the SF Opera over the decades because they were long and ridiculous. The exception was in 1986 when Sheri Greenawald and Francisco Araiza played the young, doomed lovers in the openly corrupt society of early 18th century France, which spurred a sudden realization at how absorbing the music and libretto can be in Massenet's masterpiece. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)

This production features the role debuts of Michael Fabiano as the young Chevalier des Grieux who falls in love at first sight with Ellie Dehn as the teenaged Manon Lescaut who is being sent via coach to a convent, which is what families customarily did with extra daughters at the time. The singers both have beautiful voices, although from under the overhang in the orchestra section, Dehn sounded a little underpowered during the first two acts while Fabiano sounded as if he was oversinging a bit in the last two acts. This was completely unnecessary as Fabiano demonstrated during his soft, exquisite rendition of the Act II daydream aria, En Fermant Les Yeux (Le Rêve).

The real strength of this production was the sparkling conducting of the SF Opera Orchestra, by Patrick Fournillier which managed to switch seamlessly from seriously tragic opera to melodrama to musical comedy (think late 19th Century French Broadway, complete with dialogue). On the comic end of the spectrum, Robert Brubaker, who was seen last month in Elektra as the lecherous old King Aegisth at SFO, played another rich old lecher, Guillot de Morfontaine. In the photo above he is accompanied by the dancer Rachel Little, and his three "actress companions" Renée Rapier as Rosette, Monica Dewey as Pousette, and Laura Krumm as Javotte. As a funny, musically sharp little group, they just about stole the show, and my concert companion wished he could adopt three kittens just so he could name them Rosette, Pousette, and Javotte. "Or maybe put together a drag trio for next Halloween and see who recognizes the obscure reference."

Unlike Puccini's fractured-scenes, operatic version of the same tale, Massenet and his librettists Meilhac and Gille retain much of the early 18th century novella by Abbe Prevost, an adventurous fellow who bounced between the military, the monastery and mistresses in a number of European countries, including a Belgian woman who was reportedly the inspiration for Manon Lescaut. This means there are a lot of minor characters, many of them sung in superb solo outings by members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus. Best of all was the resonant bass voice of James Creswell above as Comte des Grieux, the boring father reminiscent of Germont in La Traviata trying to restore honor to the family after his son's indecent infatuation. David Pershall as Lescaut, Manon's cousin who worries about family honor too little and gambling too much, was not quite as impressive vocally but he transformed what can be an obnoxious character into a charming "bon vivant."

The direction and costume design by Vincent Boussard, who gave us that weird Bellini I Capuleti and I Montecchi in 2012, was also a pleasant surprise. Instead of the usually naturalistic, French froufrou that tends to adorn many Manon productions, this staging was stripped down, with the chorus deployed in a stylized manner that worked much better than the usual run-on, run-off blocking. The chorus also sounded great at every dynamic level. The character of Manon, like Carmen, can be played validly in any number of ways, from neurotically self-destructive to sweetly misunderstood to outrageously selfish. From the very first scene, Dehn seemed to embrace Manon as a nice young woman who is a monster of appetite, and the Act III Cours-la-Reine above looked like a precursor to Marilyn singing Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend (hat tip, E. Christian O'Keefe). Dehn really came into her vocal own at this point and even indulged in a bit of Cirque du Soleil theatrics.

The only serious miscue was the following Saint-Sulpice scene where Des Grieux was about to enter a religious vocation before being seduced yet again by the seductive Manon. Fabiano was directed to perform a Magic Mike cassock costume reveal of a hairy chest just before the two lovers humped each other on the church floor which triggered giggles throughout the audience.

The gambling scene at the Hotel Transylvania was beautifully staged, however, with the chorus kept offstage for most of the action, and the commodification of human relations, which is ever-present throughout the entire opera, came through loud and clear. After insulting a few too many powerful, rich men, our heroine goes from Toast of Paris to convicted prostitute shipped off to the colonies in Louisiana.

There are five more performances of Manon, and this production is well worth seeing, both dramatically and musically. Here's a consumer alert, though: If you are thinking about sitting in the balcony, be aware that you won't see any of the staging that takes place at the top of the stationary wall. The production, which recently debuted in Lithuania and will travel on to Israel, is great for the projection of voices but not so good for balcony sightlines, so you might want to wait for one of the final three performances and be sure to sit where you can see the Opera Vision screens.


Janos Gereben said...

Kudos. But fix "Lithuainia" - that's a Trump country.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Janos: You mean like "Zamboni" or "Nambla" in the Roz Chast cartoon?

Thanks for the edit.