Arts & Events

Solid Singing in a Dreadful Staging of Massenet’s MANON

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 10, 2017 - 12:47:00 PM

After the brief orchestral prelude to Manon, the curtain rises on what is supposed to be the courtyard of an inn in Amiens, France. At this year’s San Francisco Opera production of Manon, all we saw was a bare stage and silhouettes of chairs lined up against a bare wall. So, we thought, this will be an abstract production. However, we soon found out that it was merely a bad, indeed, a very bad production. Its foibles were too numerous to recount, but one bit of absurdly miscalculated stage direction must be mentioned. It occurred in the opening minutes of Manon. Once Lescaut, sung by baritone David Pershall, has greeted his young cousin, Manon, sung by Ellie Dehn, and Manon has sung her delightfully breathless aria about making her first trip away from home, “Je suis encore tout étourdie,” (“I’m all in a tizzy”), Lescaut leaves Manon alone briefly while he deals with her luggage. An old roué, Guillot de Morfontaine, makes a pass at Manon and insinuates that his coach is at her disposal for an assignation. Lescaut reappears and puts Guillot to flight, warning his cousin to be on guard. Then off he goes once again. Alone, Manon daydreams about a life of pleasure. Then she pulls herself together with the aria, “Voyons, Manon, plus de chimères.” (“No more daydreaming, Manon.” She accepts, albeit with some remorse, that she must enter a convent. 

As Manon, Ellie Dehn exits stage right, leaving the stage bare. Enter from stage left young Chevalier des Grieux, sung by tenor Michael Fabiano. To a bare stage, des Grieux begins singing “I’m drawn to her by an irresistible attraction.” Are we supposed to infer that he has seen Manon from afar before coming onstage? In every other Manon I’ve attended, des Grieux enters, spots Manon sitting at one of the inn’s courtyard tables, and , dazzled by her beauty, can’t take his eyes off her. Here, however, in this ridiculous staging by Vincent Boussard, des Grieux never sets eyes on Manon, in our presence, at least, but already sings of being drawn to her. When he introduces himself to Manon, it is love at first sight for both of them. It’s what the French call le coup de foudre. Instead of resigning herself to the convent, Manon suggests that they commandeer Guillot’s coach and flee together. In the ensuing duet, “Nous vivrons à Paris, tous les deux,” the voices of Michael Fabiano and Ellie Dehn blended beautifully. So off go the young lovers. Manon even frivolously leaves a suitcase behind, which mysteriously pops open and a balloon rises from it as Act I ends on an absolutely silly note. 

Look. The music of Manon is too beautiful, too steeped in the Gallic tenderness for young love, to be spoiled by obdurately abstract and gimmicky staging. Thus, in spite of this production’s dreadful stage direction, Massenet’s Manon retains much of its magic. That it does so is largely due to the inspired singing of Michael Fabiano as des Grieux. Though Fabiano has impressed us before as Rodolfo in La Bohème, Rodolfo in Luisa Miller, and the title role in Don Carlo, his role debut as des Grieux was marked by a youthful timbre that fitted perfectly with the character of the ardent young lover. Fabiano’s high notes, sung pianissimo, were a revelation, beautifully redolent of the tenderness his character feels for Manon. 

In the role of Manon, soprano Ellie Dehn, who was also making a role debut, was solid, though hardly spectacular. Her voice is perhaps not bright and youthful enough to be perfect for this role, but her singing is technically sound. Still, one couldn’t help regretting the absence of Nadine Sierra, who was originally scheduled to sing the role of Manon. Having heard Nadine Sierra’s incandescent rendition of Manon’s “”N’est-ce plus ma main, n’est-ce plus ma voix?” which she memorably sang with Michael Fabiano in the David Gockley Farewell Concert last year, I had high hopes for a brilliant role debut for Nadine Sierra as Manon. For some reason, however, perhaps the sheer length of this demanding role, Sierra decided that Manon was not right for her at this stage of her young career, and she regretfully withdrew. It is to the credit of Ellie Dehn that she willingly took on the challenge of filling in for a Nadine Sierra who had so recently made such a huge impression in performing a major aria from Massenet’s Manon for local audiences.  

Act II takes place in the small apartment shared by Manon and des Grieux in Paris. Here too the staging and set design were disappointing. Having recently seen a Los Angeles Opera production of Manon with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon in which the set for Act II was dominated by a huge bed where a scantily clad Manon and des Grieux engaged one another in titillating foreplay (or was it post-coital play?), this San Francisco Opera production was lame by comparison. Nor did it have the touching realism and local color of the old 1971 San Francisco Opera production that featured the incomparable team of Beverly Sills as Manon and Nicolai Gedda as des Grieux.  

Instead, we had more bland abstraction. Thus, what should be the highlight of Act II, Manon’s soliloquoy addressed to their modest dinner table, “Adieu, notre petite table,” somehow lacked the poignancy of this moment. Realizing how much she loves des Grieux and how much she will miss their domestic bliss, Manon also realizes that she will inevitably lose des Grieux to a planned abduction of her lover by his angry father, planned for that very night she is told by De Bretigny, sung by baritone Timothy Mix, who insidiously promises to lavish Manon with every luxury to make her the equal of an empress. Torn between love and a realistic appraisal of her chances, either with des Grieux or with De Bretigny, Manon hesitates. And all is lost. As des Grieux is abducted, Manon can only cry out with the heart-felt exclamation of “Mon pauvre Chevalier!” 

In Act III, Comte des Grieux, the Chevalier’s father, sung impressively by bass James Creswell, announces that his son has overcome his disillusionment at the loss of Manon and is about to take holy orders at Saint Sulpice. Manon overhears this news and wonders if her ex-lover has indeed forgotten her. She decides to find out for herself by going to Saint Sulpice and confronting des Grieux. At first, des Grieux is adamant that their affair is over. However, when Manon sings the utterly enchanting aria “N’est ce plus ma main?,” des Grieux turns to putty, and he ends up embracing Manon and passionately renewing their love affair. This key moment was staged by director Vincent Boussard in a rather hokey manner, with Manon lying flat on the floor of the church and reaching upwards to her resistant ex-lover.  

Act IV is set in a Paris town house where gambling is the main attraction. Manon and des Grieux arrive and she urges him to place his bets. He resists at first, then gives way. He wins repeatedly. But Guillot, who is still hounding Manon, accuses des Grieux of winning by cheating. Guillot calls the police, who arrest both des Grieux and Manon. The Comte des Grieux manages to have his son quickly released, but Manon is not so fortunate. She is incarcerated as a “loose woman” and faces deportation to Louisiana, still a French colony in the 1720s when Massenet’s Manon is set. The prison guards abuse their women prisoners, who fight back – a touch that has contemporary overtones in today’s world of police abuse and widespread male sexual abuse of women.  

Meanwhile, Lescaut and des Grieux manage to bribe the guards for some time alone with Manon, who is now gravely ill. The lovers recall past moments of happiness, and Manon asks des Grieux for forgiveness for her inconstancies. With musical passages returning from their earlier happy life together, Manon dies in the arms of her lover, as Massenet’s Manon comes to a poignant end. In this opera based on the popular18th century novel Manon Lescaut by L’Abbé Prévost, Massenet has drawn a musical portrait of an eminently fascinating Manon, a young woman endowed with a naïve joie de vivre who allows herself to be corrupted not out of venality but merely out of an innate ability for survival. Yet Massenet’s Manon never loses her capacity for heartfelt devotion to love, and this is her salvation, even as she goes to her death. In a production marred by dreadful staging, conductor Patrick Fournillier, a Massenet specialist, did yeoman duty keeping Massenet’s brilliantly Romantic music on track throughout. Hats off to Fournillier; and I hope we never have to see staging by Vincent Boussard and sets by Vincent Lemaire ever again.