Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

First Night of the BBC Proms : Elgar The Kingdom

The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.

Le nozze di Figaro, Munich

One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.

James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.

Music for a While: Improvisations on Henry Purcell

‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.

Nabucco at Orange

The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.

Richard Strauss: Notturno

Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.

Saint Louis: A Hit is a Hit is a Hit

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.

La Flûte Enchantée (2e Acte)
at the Aix Festival

In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.

Ariodante at the Aix Festival

High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.

Lucy Crowe, Wigmore Hall

The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.

The Turn of the Screw, Holland Park

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.

Plenty of Va-Va-Vroom: La Fille du Regiment, Iford

It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?

La finta giardiniera, Glyndebourne

‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’

Sophie Karthäuser, Wigmore Hall

Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera

‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.

Leoš Janáček : The Cunning Little Vixen, Garsington Opera at Wormsley

Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.

La Traviata in Marseille

It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).

Madama Butterfly in San Francisco

Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.

Luca Francesconi : Quartett, Linbury Studio Theatre, London

Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.

Puccini Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House, London

Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):