Chicago Sun-Times, 28 September 2008
Manon, Chicago, 27 September 2008
'Manon' opens season in style
When Renata Scotto took the title role in Lyric Opera of Chicago's last production of Jules Massenet's 1884/1891 Parisian melodrama "Manon" 25 years ago -- as another Italian, Mirella Freni, had done in Lyric's first performances 10 years before -- a friend remarked, "It says 'Manon,' but it sure smells like 'Tosca.' "

Saturday night Lyric opened its 54th season at the Civic Opera House with a "Manon" that smells and sounds like "Manon."

A charismatic pair of singing actors in the lead roles and the local debut of David McVicar's well-traveled production, along with the quarter-century wait for the work's return, had generated keen interest since the season was announced last year.

The result is much more than just a celebrity-driven entertainment. With a gifted and deeply knowledgeable young French conductor in the pit and singers much more concerned with advancing their characters than their individual profiles, Lyric's new "Manon" is musically complete, dramatically involving and a truly moving evening in the theater.

French soprano Natalie Dessay stole local hearts -- and the show -- when she debuted here as Renee Fleming's sister Morgana in Handel's "Alcina" in the 1999-2000 season. As in that production and her Lucia four years later, she is actress first here and takes great but usually successful risks with her vocal interpretations to serve her part. In this story of the young girl who escapes a future in a convent to become a partying courtesan, we have no doubt that Dessay's Manon is much more than the kept woman with a heart of gold.

German tenor Jonas Kaufmann takes a similar approach. He pours himself into the role of the torn and romantic young Chevalier des Grieux -- a sort of Romeo with self-doubt -- and along the way, with a remarkable command of French language and musical idiom, delivers immensely stirring performances of two of the greatest tenor arias in the French repertoire. Both Dessay and Kaufmann -- physically well-matched as well -- dig deep to bring us singing that arises from the situation rather than stand-and-deliver posturing aimed at the rafters.

Much credit goes to conductor Emmanuel Villaume, 44, the Strasbourg-born music director of the Spoleto USA festival. Taking the score with a remarkable level of seriousness, he plays it as music and not mere accompaniment or decoration. We hear immediately why Puccini was so enamored with his French predecessor and his gifts for theatricality and orchestration. The enviably malleable Lyric Opera Orchestra and its fine concertmaster, Robert Hanford, gave Villaume every- thing he wanted, even in the quietest passages.

As his "Giulio Cesare," "Trovatore" and "Billy Budd" have demonstrated here, David McVicar is the go-to stage director for animated rethinking of works of the past. Although this production was created for the English National Opera in 1998, it is still fresh and effective, filling in the strong sense of social criticism and mockery that Massenet stripped from the Abbe Prevost's original 1731 story.

A cast featuring seven members of Lyric's Ryan Opera Center is highlighted by Ryan alum baritone Christopher Feigum's Lescaut, cousin and would-be protector of Manon. American baritone Jake Gardner is an assured de Bretigny, and Lyric's stalwart character tenor David Cangelosi dramatically unveils Guillot as much more sinister than a buffoonish lecher. Former Joffrey dancer Michael Levine leads the third act ballet, itself a satire by Massenet on French convention.
Photo Credit: Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera Chicago

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