Massenet’s Manon at Lyric Opera, 2008-2009

In the interest of full disclosure I should explain that Massenet’s Manon, the first opera in our 2008-2009 Lyric Opera season, is my favorite French opera.

Although not initially a favorite of critics, Jules Massenet’s Belle Époque opera remains one of the favorites in the French repertoire—as of 1953 it had received more than 2,000 performances at the Paris Opera. Manon has fascinated artists since her first appearance in a novel by Antoine François Prévost in 1731, to my knowledge inspiring a ballet, five operas, and several film versions.

What is Massenet’s opera about? I’m asking that question sincerely. The description you generally hear is that it’s the story of a dazzlingly beautiful young woman whose desire for pleasure and gaiety destroy her and everyone around her. That’s certainly the view reflected in the observations of Natalie Dessay, our Manon last evening, as quoted in the program:

She knows what she wants and she wants it now. It’s a very teenaged behavior. She’s not a seducer, a Marlene Dietrich—she’s very impulsive and fresh, with no moral principles or values. She doesn’t see why it should be bad to behave as she does.

That’s true as far as it goes but I’m not sure it’s ultimately particularly important. The main female and male characters in the work, Manon Lescaut and her lover, the Chevalier des Grieux, are shlimazels. Things happen to them. They are puppets whose strings are pulled by the three dominant figures in the work: De Brétigny, the Count des Grieux, and Guillot Morfontaine. Manon is unfaithful to des Grieux because she is unable to resist De Bréigny’s blandishments; she doesn’t leave des Grieux nor does des Grieux leave her—he is abducted at the instigation of his father, the Count, to preserve the family name; the end of the opera is precipitated by Guillot’s false accusations. Manon is a captive of her own beauty and the effect it has on others; des Grieux is a prisoner of his passions. Their wishes, hopes, and actions are meaningless.

I’ve never read the novel on which Manon is based; I do know that it was banned in France because of its biting criticism of the pre-Revolution French nobility. Manon’s and des Grieux’s helplessness in the face of the actions of the aristocrats (Count des Grieux and Guillot) and officials (De Brétigny) may be an echo of that.

I don’t really have enough superlatives to describe the performance we saw last night. It was the best performance of Manon I’ve ever seen—quicker, lighter, more opera comique than other productions I’ve seen.

I arrived prepared to be blown away by Natalie Dessay, the reigning superstar soprano of French opera. Her Lucia several years back at Lyric was certainly wonderful. Her performance last night exhibited an impressive emotional range from the tenderness of the Act II Adieu, notre petite table to the pathos of the last act Ah, des Grieux.

I wasn’t prepared to be astonished at tenor Jonas Kaufman’s marvelous des Grieux. The emotion of his third act Ah! fuyez, douce image, my favorite tenor aria in the French repertoire, was simply incandescent. A very strong performance of a challenging aria.

I attribute much of the light, vivacioius spirit of the performance to the deft conducting of Emmanuel Villaume. His tempi were brighter than I’m accustomed to and he maintained a solid control over the brass, which furthered the opera comique flavor I mentioned above.

The staging was an enormous improvement over what we’ve typically seen from Lyric Opera—whether among principles, chorus, or supers there was great movement to this production. There was always something happening on stage from the danced overture to des Grieux’s final lifting of Manon’s dead body into his arms.

A wonderful, wonderful production. A few moments ago my wife walked up and remarked, ironically, “I hope this isn’t the highlight of the season.”. They’ve set a high standard.

The Critics

I see that John von Rhein agrees with me:

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 does Andrew Patner, the Sun-Times critic:

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 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.

I saw that production of Manon 25 years ago at Lyric. This one is head and shoulders above it and well worth taking in before it closes on October 31.

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