, 18 October 2008
Claudio Vellutini
Manon, Chicago, October 4, 2008
Massenet’s Manon opened triumphantly
Chicago, 04/10/2008. The Civic Opera House. Jules Massenet, Manon. David McVicar, director. Tanya McCallin, set and costume designer. Paule Constable, original lighting designer. Kevin Sleep, lighting designer. Michael Keegan-Dolan, original choreographer. Ben Ash, revival choreographer. Natalie Dessay (Manon), Jonas Kaufmann (Des Grieux), Christopher Feigum (Lescaut), Raymon Aceto (Count Des Grieux), David Cangelosi (Guillaume de Morfontaine), Jake Gardner (De Brétigny), Andriana Chuchman (Poussette), Kathryn Leemhuis (Javotte), Katherine Lerner (Rosette), Sam Handley (Innkeeper), Edward Mout (First Guard), David Portillo (Second Guard), Angela Mannino (Maid), Rodell Rosel (Croupier), Paul Corona (Archer), Craig Irvin (Sergeant). Orchestra and Chorus of the Lyiric Opera of Chicago. Donald Nally, chorus master. Emmanuel Villaume, conductor
The 2008-2009 season of the Lyric Opera of Chicago opened triumphantly with one of the most compelling productions of Massenet’s Manon mounted in recent years. The event had been eagerly awaited as the collaboration of three of the most beloved opera artists making their return to the Chicagoan stage: French soprano Natalie Dessay, sensational in the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor during the 2003-’04 season; German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, acclaimed as Alfredo in the 2002-’03 production of La traviata; and Scottish director David McVicar, whose Giulio Cesare was highly praised last year.

Unlike what we have seen in other recent productions, McVicar and his team (set and costume designer Tanya McCallin, light designers Paul Constable and Kevin Sleep, and coreographer Michael Keegan-Kelly) do not abandon the original setting of the plot but depart from the typical opulence of eighteenth century depictions on the operatic stage: hoop-dresses and wigs were seldom employed and, as in the case of Guillot de Morfontaine, provided a means of portraying the physical and social decline of the character.

The whole action takes place in a sort of amphitheater, whose bleachers are almost always crowded with lustful voyeurs. (Sex is indeed one of the recurrent elements of this production, and many of its facets are represented on stage). Lighting and a few simple objects indicate a change of setting in an essential and effective way: a bathtub, a room divider, and a desk and chair outline Manon and Des Grieux’s private room in Act II, while only few shaded chairs are enough to represent the parlor in Saint-Sulpice.

In McVicar’s production, the action does not require elaborate décor in order to be appealing but arises naturally from the interaction of the characters: in other words, the director demonstrates that it is possible to make an extremely compelling show relying not on lush, ornamental sets, but on careful recitation and deep insight into the psychology of the characters. Two examples among the many possible are sufficient to convey the visual and emotional impact of McVicar’s work: during “Adieu notre petite table”, Manon/Dessay lies on the desk where previously she had naughtily read Des Grieux’s letter to his father. The subtle erotic games they were playing already appear to her mind as a nostalgic thought, and for her last “Adieu” she turns suddenly on one side as if grief had been eating away at her.

In the Saint-Sulpice scene, it seems at first that Des Grieux sees Manon as in a dream, but when he approaches her to caress her, he realizes that she is not a vision. He grabs her violently by the neck as if to strangle her, before finally pushing her away. Both of these dramatic gestures are synchronized with Massenet’s illustrative musical passages (the conclusion of Manon’s aria in the second act, and the abrupt chord that opens the dialogue between Manon and Des Grieux in the third), and show McVicar’s care in shaping the action with respect for the musical structure.

Natalie Dessay took part in this production in Barcelona in 2007, partnered with Rolando Villazon, and earlier this year Virgin Classics issued a DVD of the Spanish performances. Since then, she has proved to be ideal for the role. In Chicago she seemed in perfect form: not only has her voice gained enough power in the lower register suitable for the most dramatic moments of the work while her upper register has remained boldly bright and impeccable, but her interpretation goes far beyond the simple control of every note of the part. It is the spontaneity in her way of bringing life to the words through a very subtle use of vocal colors and accents, together with her extraordinary stage presence, that makes Dessay’s Manon simply unforgettable.

Jonas Kaufmann made his role debut as Des Grieux with this production. At first, his dark, almost baritonal voice doesn’t seem ideal to convey the juvenile naiveté that the character shows in the first act, but very soon one is won over by the refinement of his singing, rich in nuances and mezzevoci, and the accuracy of his acting. Both his arias in the second and third act conquered the audience, who rewarded him with the warmest ovation.

All the other singers of the cast were highly professional, and provided an excellent framework for Dessay’s and Kaufmann’s interpretations. Bariton Christopher Feigum portrayed a solid Lescaut, tenor David Cangelosi an effective Guillot de Morfortaine, and bass Raymond Aceto an authoritative yet human Count Des Grieux. Poussette, Javotte, Rosette received vivid characterization from Andriana Chuchman, Kathryn Leemhuis and Katherine Lerner, and Jake Gardner was a convincing De Brétigny. The rest of the cast included Sam Handley (Innkeeper), Edward Mout (First Guard), David Portillo (Second Guard), Angela Mannino (Maid), Rodell Rosel (Croupier), Paul Corona (Archer) and Craig Irvin (Sergeant).

Emmanuel Villaume conducted the Orchestra of the Lyric Opera with great care, highlighting Massenet’s refined orchestration and providing an adequate support to the singers.
Photo Credit: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera Chicago

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