The Wall Street Journal,
Massenet: Manon, Chicago, 27 September 2008
French lessons in life
A mesmerizing 'Manon'
French opera doesn't get much respect -- the Italian and German varieties tend to be taken more seriously -- but if it were always produced like Massenet's "Manon" was at Lyric Opera of Chicago this month, that would change. As directed by David McVicar, starring Natalie Dessay and conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, this "Manon" was more than a few pretty tunes; it was a wrenching descent into the abyss.

"Manon" (1884) is usually an opportunity for producers to do Fragonard-style opulence, with pretty dresses and frou-frou, but Mr. McVicar's production suggested the story's darker side from the beginning. Designer Tanya McCallin's set was a curved line of bleachers, occupied on and off by gawking, gesticulating, heckling observers. The muted color palette -- gray, off-white, and dark green -- of her 18th-century costumes and furniture, as well as the deliberately spotty lighting (originally by Paule Constable; done for Chicago by Kevin Sleep), made everything look a little dirty.

Mr. McVicar directed all the choristers to be individuals during the crowd scenes, which always seemed on the verge of turning into riots, with people rushing, grasping, staring, and performing illicit acts. And the aristocrats were just as vicious as the rabble.

It's a rapacious and dangerous world, but Manon -- the convent-bound 16-year-old who runs off with the handsome young Chevalier Des Grieux, abandons him for a richer protector, and then changes her mind again -- thinks she will not only survive but thrive, and have both money and love. Unfortunately, as she discovers too late, youth and beauty will get you only so far. Natalie Dessay, a mesmerizing Manon, was absolutely convincing, even sympathetic, as a dreamy teenager who suddenly discovers both romance and her own power, her singing shifting easily from multihued lyricism to coloratura exuberance. Ms. Dessay always does whatever the character requires. Singing "Adieu, notre petit table," she curled up on the table in the garret she shared with Des Grieux, heartbroken; later, her attempt to pry her ex-lover away from the church, in which he has taken religious orders, felt dangerous and real. And forget about glamour: In Act I, she was a kid, gawky and ill-dressed; in Act V, a dying prisoner bound for exile, she was filthy, with cropped hair and a battered face, and got dragged unceremoniously across the stage like a broken doll.

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann, singing the role of Des Grieux for the first time, matched Ms. Dessay in intensity. He took a lot of vocal risks, and his pianissimos were not especially pretty, but his full-throated utterances were exciting, and one could feel his anguish and the volcanic nature of his feelings for Manon. Baritone Christopher Feigum effectively completed the triangle as Manon's dissolute cousin Lescaut, a pander who helps to push the impressionable Manon into this degraded society. Mr. Villaume's conducting was flowing and idiomatic: Ms. Dessay threw herself at his feet during the curtain call, and for good reason.

 back top