Chicago Tribune, 29 September 2008
By John Von Rhein
Manon, Chicago, 27 September 2008
A timely tale of greed, Lyric’s ‘Manon’ a triumph
Gambling dens, kinky sex: Lyric opener has great singing too
Opera doesn’t get any better than the brilliant performance of Massenet’s “Manon” that opened the Lyric Opera of Chicago season Saturday in the Ardis Krainik Theatre. While the alluring French soprano Natalie Dessay’s vocally accomplished and dramatically fearless account of the title role was the center of attention, this was one of those shows where everything comes together on a high plane of excellence. Not for a long while has the dressy gala throng gotten so much theatrical bang for its bucks.

Although director David McVicar’s production predates the current Wall Street meltdown by a decade, his gritty take on the greed, corruption, easy money and easier impoverishment of pre-Revolutionary France hits home with astonishing immediacy. In this world of lecherous aristocrats and willing victims, everybody has his or her price, and that includes Manon Lescaut, the country girl turned courtesan whose abrupt rise and tragic fall Dessay charts to such heartbreaking effect.

For Manon, a heedless teenager who uses her beauty and charm to advance her ambition, the choice is a no-brainer: Either it’s life in a convent or it’s running off to Paris with the handsome Chevalier des Grieux. He’s played here by the charismatic German tenor Jonas Kaufmann with an ardor and incandescence that are fully a match for Dessay’s. You can’t take your eyes off them.

As with every McVicar show, the glory lies as much in the details as in his genius for orchestrating them into a totally believable society. Tanya McCallin’s set suggests the blood sport of a bullring, in which rowdy spectators take voyeuristic delight in everything we are seeing. Servants spy on their masters, while the degenerate upper classes frolic in frivolous extravaganzas and in gambling dens laced with kinky sex.

What a pleasure finally to hear a French soprano singing Manon at the Lyric! Vocally Dessay has the delicacy and agility the music requires, along with an unerring way of matching sound to dramatic truth. She bade touching farewell to the lovers’ little table, sailed elegantly through the glittery coloratura of her gavotte and held the audience rapt with her death scene. At her side, Kaufmann sang like a dream—virile and impassioned, yet full of soft tonal nuance and color, nowhere more so than in his “Ah! Fuyez douce image.” A strong actor, he made Des Grieux a far more credible flesh-and-blood figure than the callow youth portrayed in the text. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume elicited a properly French sound from the fine Lyric orchestra, and the chorus sang and acted with enthusiasm.

If this were Broadway, Lyric’s “Manon” would run for months, even years. As it is, you have only until Oct. 31 to catch it.
Photo Credit: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera Chicago

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