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Natalie Dessay as Manon [Photo by Dan Rest]
21 Oct 2008

Manon at Lyric Opera of Chicago

A funny thing happened on the way to the convent. Manon Lescaut, a pretty little girl with a taste for pretty things, became sidetracked by a pretty young man.

Jules Massenet: Manon

Manon: Natalie Dessay; Des Grieux: Jonas Kaufmann; Lescaut: Christopher Feigum; Guillot de Morfontaine: David Cangelosi; De Bretigny: Jake Gardner; Comte: Raymond Aceto. Lyric Opera of Chicago. Production by David McVicar. Conducted by Emmanuel Villaume.

Above: Natalie Dessay as Manon [Photo by Dan Rest]


In Prevost’s novel and in opera after opera (at least five of them) she comes to a bad end after many colorful adventures. Parents can safely bring their daughters, sure of a moral message; the daughters (and sons) will enjoy Manon’s taste for enjoyment, as gaudily illustrated by Massenet. It took two hundred years for someone to think up a way to end the tale happily: in Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and the Broadway show and Hollywood movie based upon it, the dizzy heroine gets the louche career, the diamonds she needs, the boy she loves and Paris. Moral: Arkansas rears ’em sturdier than Artois.

Manon_Chicago_03.pngManon (Natalie Dessay) and Des Grieux (Jonas Kaufmann) have fallen in love. Act I, Manon. Photo by Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Massenet’s Manon is irresistible to any diva possessing charm, decent acting skills, some coloratura technique and a trim figure – zaftig Carmens we can endure, and charmless Isoldes, and plump Mimis and Marguerites were already a cliché by 1910, but Manon has got to seem adorably frail, likely to float away on the breeze if she is not weighed down by sin and her Act III gown (any diva’s gaudiest). Natalie Dessay, an actress, a charmer, a Frenchwoman, and a slender slip of a thing was born to play it, and triumph with it.

I must put in a good word about the wigmaster’s work – though I don’t know which of the three sponsoring companies’ wigmaster is to be commended – in designing a long fall for the hoydenish Manon we first meet in the inn at Amiens, an upswept coif for the elegant courtesan of Act III, and then leaving her with close-cropped curlicues (to prevent prison lice) for her pathetic death scene – visual cues for us, to which Dessay plays with a detailed, complex impersonation of a clumsy adolescent (not unlike her Fille du Regiment), a leman in love, a lady of fashion and a pathetic, dying castaway. Similarly, she sang like a lost girl in Act II, torn between her love, genuine if skin-deep, for Des Grieux and her yearnings for the great world and its treasures, the laughter she deliciously mimicked in her coloratura in the Cours-la-reine, the doom she ultimately faced with something like a Parisian shrug. This is a superbly detailed, perfectly thought out, ideally interpreted performance, one to be held as a standard for any other Manon.

Jonas Kaufmann sings far too rarely in the States – his matinee-idol looks, slim figure, ardent acting and caressing tenor are mainly familiar from DVDs made in his home base, the Zurich opera, where he is renowned for such weighty roles as Don José and Parsifal. In Chicago, he may have been suffering from a cold (he had cancelled an appearance at a pre-season star gala), but in any case I had the feeling he was not filling the admittedly huge house until the demented outbursts of the last two scenes. His singing was beautiful and seductive, but sometimes drowned by Emmanuel Villaume’s orchestra – which never threatened Madame Dessay.

Christopher Feigum, whom I last saw as Lescaut in Puccini’s opera, hardly had to change a thing but language to play the role in Massenet’s. His sturdy, likable baritone and bullying attitude always entertained. David Cangelosi neatly struck the difficult balance (missed on the DVD from Barcelona) between the ridiculous and the nasty in Guillot de Morfontaine: this is one of the most intricate of comprimario roles, its layers insinuating themselves into every aspect of the story (Guillot is wealth, old age, ugliness, vanity, and a sore loser into the bargain), and Cangelosi made the most of them. The other small roles were trimly done, giving the proper impression of a cruel, frivolous world that loves Manon when she’s in clover and discards her without a tear when she’s used up. The three actresses she admires in the opening scene clearly have their priorities on straight: Manon may not have a deep heart, but she has one; they don’t even pretend to.

It’s not a pretty story, let’s face it – it’s a tawdry, “way of the world” story – and in McVicar’s staging, the pretty costumes do not disguise the ugliness. (Or the lack of costumes in the Hotel de Transylvanie, a casino where an awfully large number of the guests, especially well-built young men, seem to have lost their shirts.) McVicar’s unit set represents a decrepit bull ring, or perhaps an operating theater – I don’t quite get the significance of this, or of having his heartless chorus looking on at every scene, as if Manon’s story amuses but bores them, a too-familiar sit-com. McVicar has far too many people on stage, spying on all the most intimate scenes except the very last – I’m not sure what is gained by having so many people observing the intimacy of Act II, though there may be a clue in its end, when Manon, uncertain what she really wants (as usual), has allowed her lover to be kidnapped without warning him. As she gazes about in despair, half a dozen ladies with fans approach her, applauding her “performance.” (Beverly Sills, my first Manon, would throw herself tragically on her bed – and Bretigny, her rich new lover, would enter and dangle a sparkling necklace in the air to stop her crying – as indeed it did.)

I had the advantage (or disadvantage) of having seen this production of Manon, on the DVD from Barcelona, which also stars Madame Dessay. The Chicago performance was undoubtedly better – small roles (such as Guillot and the Comte des Grieux) were far better cast in Chicago, chorus and ballet were just as elegantly absurd, I prefer to rest my eyes on Mr. Kaufmann than the equally able Rolando Villazon, and several of the most vulgar touches in the DVD were ameliorated by Chicago second thoughts (or third thoughts – the production originated at ENO). The orgy at the Hotel de Transylvanie gets out of hand on the DVD – or maybe the cameramen were overexcited by it – and onstage defecation, a Barcelona opera signature, does not feature in Chicago.

John Yohalem

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