Opera News, December 2008
Manon, Chicago, September/October 2008
Although Manon is arguably the archetypal French opera, the only previous interpreters of the title role at Lyric Opera of Chicago have been Polish (Teresa Zylis-Gara in the 1973 company premiere) and Italian (Renata Scotto in 1983). Massenet ‘s masterpiece made a triumphant house return on September 27, this time in the celebrated David McVicar mounting created a decade ago for ENO, featuring that quintessentially Gallic soprano, Natalie Dessay.

McVicar’s intelligent production, with its Hogarth-inspired visuals by Tanya McCallin, succeeded in creating an ambience of eighteenth-century decadence while reminding us that what was powdered and perfumed was also unwashed —no glossing over seamy realities with rococo fripperies here. The setting was grounded by a series of grey-blue tiers serving as arena seating for a teeming hoard of onlookers, who applauded or hissed the proceedings by turn; even the lovers’ intimate moments were surreptitiously devoured by servants peeping at them from behind a pair of “privacy” screens. By contrast, an image of des Grieux isolated by falling snow in the final act was shattering in its loneliness. The opera poignantly emerged as a story of two adolescents who are destroyed for the shallow amusement of a society that regards them as disposable. Within this gritty framework, Manon’s avarice was quite understandable, even heartbreaking.

Dessay was an adorable Manon, possibly the finest exponent of the role since Beverly Sills, and it was a rare delight to hear the French text roll about the soprano’s tongue like the most delectable of sauces. In the spirit of full disclosure, one may acknowledge that Dessay’s application of an essentially light coloratura instrument to intense dramatic purpose has exacted some small price in tonal purity and ease of production in alt: the display writing in the Cours-la-Reine interlude was hurled out with something approaching vehemence. A surfeit of glittering silver still coruscates through the timbre, however, and she is the only Manon in memory who so frilly embodies the fragile spirit of the sixteen-year-old coquette in her journey from erotic adventure to the tragedy of the opera’s denouement: a gradual fining away of her tone in the death scene was profoundly moving.

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann, drop-dead handsome and a fine actor to boot, similarly presented a convincing figure of callow youth with his disarmingly naïve des Grieux; vocal aficionados, however, welcomed him for his offering of true, golden-age vocalism. This is a lovely tenor voice, graced by a virile, burnished-baritonal timbre that took one by surprise when he skillfully flipped into a breathtakingly delicate, floated top. “En fermant” was exquisitely done, and “Ah! fuyez, douce image” boasted the most beautiful singing of the evening.

Christopher Feigum lent an appealing, warm-timbred baritone to his morally bankrupt Lescaut. Raymond Aceto, Jake Gardner and David Cangelosi completed the male contingent as Comte des Grieux, Brétigny and the odious roué Guillot, respectively Andriana Chuchman, Kathryn Leemhuis and Katherine Lerner formed a piquantly warbling trio of actresses. Choral forces were in excellent form.

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