By R. Todd Shuman
Manon, Chicago,  October 4, 2008
 Lyric Opera's "Manon," a first rate cast in a beautiful and insightful production
After a 25-year absence from the Lyric stage, Massanet’s French Romantic masterpiece “Manon” was given a welcome return as the first offering of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2008-2009 season. Staging the David McVicar production, which premiered at the English National Opera in 1998, Lyric offered its audience a stunning production that was gloriously sung and beautifully acted.

As the doomed lovers, Manon Lescaut and Chevalier des Grieux, Lyric scored a casting coup with noted French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay and German lyric tenor Jonas Kaufman, and they could not have made a more perfect stage couple.

Dessay, who was last seen at Lyric Opera in the 2003-2004 season in “Lucia di Lammermoor,” brought a sene of naïveté to the role, playing her as a waif-like school girl whose decent is brought on by her passion for Des Grieux. From her poignant reading of her act II aria “Adieu, notre petite table” to her coloratura fireworks during the famous Gavotte to the final tear-filled moments in her duet with Kaufman, “Ah! Des Grieux!,” Dessay’s performance was flawless and should serve as a master class on performing French Romantic opera.

As Des Grieux, Kaufman was sublime. His performances of the aria “En fermant les yeux” and “Ah, fuyez douce image” were exquisitely sung and he brought a sense of yearning to his entire performance. This was a Des Grieux that was completely smitten by the young Manon. When he sang the final words “Et c’est la l’histoire de Manon Lescaut,” you could almost feel his heart breaking.

As with most McVicar productions, movement was constant. Each scene flowed seamlessly into the next with little break in the action (this production had intermissions after Act II and after Act III). The production seemed to draw on noted philosopher Michel Foucault’s conception of “The Panopticon,” the concept that society is always watching and policing our actions. Tanya McCallin’s set designs placed tiered seating towards the back of the stage where various chorus members watched and commented on the action. It was a rare moment in this production where the main characters where not being watched by someone else.

This being a French opera, there was, of course, the obligatory third act ballet. Here, Massanet wrote dance music that echoed earlier French dance styles, and in this production, with revival choreography by Ben Ash, dancers performed a ballet that told the story of Diana and Actaeon.

With this production of “Manon” Lyric Opera of Chicago reminds us why they are one of the top opera companies in the United States, and why we in Chicago are lucky to have them. Bringing together a first rate cast in such a beautiful and insightful production, this is a “Manon” to be seen and treasured.

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Massanet’s “Manon” continues through October 31
Photo Credit: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera Chicago

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