Daily Herald, 28 September 2008
By Bill Gowen
Manon, Chicago, 27 September 2008
Dessay, Kaufmann bring "Manon" to life at Lyric Opera
Lyric Opera of Chicago picked the ideal vehicle to open its 2008-09 season Saturday night: Jules Massenet's "Manon," a showpiece for great singing, acting, dancing and stagecraft.

And when it comes to great singing, the Lyric has cast what general director William Mason calls "two of today's most extraordinary stars," in French soprano Natalie Dessay in the title role and German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as her on-again, off-again paramour, the Chevalier des Grieux.

"Manon" is based on a famous 18th century French novel (a real potboiler in its day). It worked so well in the hands of opera composer Jules Massenet in 1884 that his Italian counterpart, Giacomo Puccini, created his own successful version for the stage in 1892, titled "Manon Lescaut."

But the "Manon" of the moment is that by Massenet, last presented by Lyric Opera in 1983 with the estimable Italian diva Renata Scotto in the title role. But in 2008, the opera world is blessed with a superstar French coloratura soprano in Dessay, who brings spectacular artistry to one of the great French opera roles, which is now firmly established as as a major element of her repertoire.

Dessay did not disappoint Saturday night, bringing all the drama and nuance Massenet and his librettists, Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille, created for thr multi-faceted character of Manon Lescaut.

And this opera doesn't begin and end with the leading soprano.You must also have a world-class tenor to portray De Grieux, who loves Manon deeply but is hurt deeply to see her stray into the arms of a rival in the middle part of the opera. Kaufmann, who made his Lyric Opera debut as Cassio in "Otello" in 2001-02 and returned as Alfredo in "La traviata" the following season, shows how much he has grown as an artist in the intervening years as he takes on this challenging role for the first time.

Most operas make do with one or two love duets, but Massenet has written four. Two of them are spectacular: the dramatic rekindling of their love ("Toi! Vous!") closing Act 3, and Manon's death scene ("Ah! Des Grieux") at the final curtain.

The strong supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Of particular note is American tenor David Cangelosi, who has made a career of bringing creative musicality to often-overlooked character roles. In this case, there could hardly be a better fit than for the middle-aged Guillot de Morfontaine. But cut through the outer buffoonery (fluffy powdered wig and cane, etc.) and you have a man on his own special kind of mission. Cangelosi brings out all Guillot's frolics and foibles, still reserving a hint of the character's subtle villainy.

Stage director David McVicar created this production for English National Opera with a revival in Barcelona, Spain, before bringing it to the Lyric. His unit set (designed by Tanya McCallin) has a timeless look, with McCallin's traditional costumes firmly planting the opera in the reign of Louis XV, in the mid-18th century. Stage lighting is usually hidden, but McVicar, in collaboration with lighting designer Paule Constable, has visibly integrated them into the scenery to dramatic effect.

Massenet's haunting score, with its recurring 10-note "Manon" theme prominent in the first half of the opera (before things really become dramatic in Acts 4 and 5), is conducted with passion by Emmanuel Villaume, at home in his native French repertoire.

Donald Nally's Lyric Opera Chorus acquitted itself with its usual virtuosty throughout the evening, in particular the large crowd scenes of the Paris Cours-la-Reine in Act 3 (which also included a fine contribution from the Lyric's ballet corps) and the lively casino scene in Act 4.

"Manon" Where: Ardis Krainik Theatre, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. When: Additional performances at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 1, 7, 11, 18, 21, 24, 27 and 31; 2 p.m. Oct. 4 and 15 Tickets: Call (312) 332-2244, Ext. 5600, or visit lyricopera.org, for availability and reservations; major credit cards accepted. At a glance: Opera comique in five acts by Jules Massenet, with libretto by Haneu Meilhac and Philippe Gille. David McVicar, stage director; Tanya McCallin, set and costume designer; Donald Nally, chorus master; Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Emmanuel Villaume. Starring: Natalie Dessay as Manon Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux Raymond Aceto as Count des Grieux David Cangelosi as Guillot de Morfontaine Christopher Feigum as Lescaut With Jake Gardner, Andriana Chuchman, Kathryn Leenhuis, Katherine Lerner, Sam Handley and Angela Mannino
Photo Credits: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera Chicago

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