Christie Grimstad
Manon, Chicago, 27 September 2008
Dessay and Kaufmann at Lyric Opera Opening
Winds from Lake Michigan blew the doors wide open during Lyric Opera’s opening night with the sensational performance of Manon. Heading the gale force cast of Jules Massenet‘s romantic opéra comique is the blockbuster duo of Natalie Dessay in the title role and Jonas Kaufmann as the Chevalier des Grieux.

Just as directors take artistic license, so, too, did Massenet with revisions from Abbé Prévost’s literary work L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731) by writing a score that encompasses drama, action and humor. Massenet was a prolific composer because of his innate ability to cater to the public’s taste at the time.

Massenet set his Manon in circa 1720, a time when France was experiencing soaring inflation and intense speculation (1719) stemming from Scottish economic theorist John Law that eventually led to a bubble burst in late 1720. Interestingly, French history then parallels present day America with an intense cynicism toward the banking industry. In sum, is Manon an ironic coincidence?

Natalie Dessay is the perfect femme fatale with her histrionic acting and poignant voice while Jonas Kaufmann’s pristine articulation and buttery lyricism happily reassure us his Chevalier des Grieux will return once again. David McVicar’s directorship creates a production that is loyal to author and composer alike by capturing the authenticity of life in the early 1720s.

Manon’s cousin, the drunken Lescaut, is splendidly rendered by Christopher Feigum in addition to the talents of David Cangelosi and Jake Gardner as two of Manon’s lecherous suitors, Guillot de Morfontaine and De Brétigny. Rounding out the principle cast is the Chevalier’s father, Count des Grieux played by Raymond Aceto with a richly authoritative voice along with the spunky, frivolous flirtations of Andriana Chuchman, Kathryn Leemhuis and Katherine Lerner as the three demimondes Poussette, Javotte and Rosette.

Because of the debauched excesses of French life in the early 18th century, David McVicar turns to associate Tanya McCallin who provides telling sets reminiscent of William Hogarth’s etchings that deeply satirize all strata of English life. Her nearly identical costumes blur identities during crowd scenes. Mr. McVicar is a meticulous hands-on director ensuring his cast acts in ways that typify the times despite occasional lewd antics. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s choreography is mathematical and at times dull, but he demonstrates his artistry during the oft omitted divertissement of the Opéra troup in The Cours-la-Reine scene in Act III.

Manon is masterfully conducted by Emmanuel Villaume. Scene changes take place without a closed curtain while the music plays. Mr. Villaume never languishes. The tempo is brisk and theatergoers are never lost. The audience is especially captivated during such exemplary renditions of “Adieu, notre petite table”, “En fermant les yeux” and “Ah! Fuyez douce image”.

Chicago Lyric Opera’s Manon is consistently strong and radiant. It is outstanding and well worth a visit.
Photo Credit: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera Chicago

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