By Elsa Tranter
Photos by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera
Manon Lescaut, the novel written by Abbé Prévost in France in 1731 has spawned no fewer than seven operas, a ballet, and seven films; it is referenced in dozens of well-known literary works. It’s the familiar story of rich/noble man meets poor/underclass/beautiful/younger woman; it almost never ends well. The French composer Jules Massenet’s opera “Manon” was written almost thirty years before the better known “Manon Lescaut” by the Italian composer Puccini. San Francisco has produced this opera in spurts through the years, and it has opened the season four times, the last of those being 1971 when a young Beverly Sills sang the title role. The opera was most recently heard here a long 19 years ago.
In Massenet’s version, the Chevallier Des Grieux falls for Manon as she’s on the way to the convent (a convenient way of locking up an unruly daughter) and sweeps her away to the bright lights of Paris. When she abandons him, he takes up the priesthood, only to cast aside his vows when she comes after him later in the church. And of course it ends badly, but not before a lot of beautiful lyrical singing.
This production, new to San Francisco by French Director Vincent Boussard, comes jointly with the Lithuanian National Opera and the Israeli Opera. The staging and sets purport to be of no particular time or place, bridging the gap between the time of Manon herself, the time of Massenet, and our own time; but rather than seeming timeless and placeless, they seemed to be hodgepodge of many times and many places, broad sweeps of space with sharp angles and jarring small touches. The staging worked reasonably for the crowd scenes (if you like modernist re-interpretations of old stories) but less well for moments of intimacy between the two lovers when the pair seemed lost in the vast expanse. The costumes, designed by M. Boussard, were a mix as well, some well into the Eurotrash style that was a regular feature in San Francisco for some time at the turn of the 21st century. Some were all right, others were less successful. Lighting designer Gary Marder made very good use of light and shadow, sometimes to dramatic effect. The opening scenes were brightly lit with shadows seeming to be another set of singers in elongated form. But at other times the lighting, too, seemed to miss or was maybe just too surreal, such as the final scene of beautiful darkness where what appeared to be a single bright lightbulb substituted for starlight.
The music of “Manon” is some of Massenet’s best, though the lyrics, as is frequently the case in opera, are somewhat trite and even silly, especially to a modern audience. (There are times when we are better off not knowing what the singers are singing…)
In this production, soprano Ellie Dehn makes her role debut. Her performance was energetic and her voice grew more confident throughout the evening. She has a sweet and pleasant soprano, even if it is not quite large enough to command the stage of the San Francisco opera house. She became more credible as the older Manon, desperate not to be on the losing side of cards or love or life itself. Ms. Dehn, In addition to singing in opera houses around the world, is a frequent guest on the weekly ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ radio program, which is based in her native Minnesota.
Playing opposite her, as the Chevalier des Grieux was the charismatic Michael Fabiano, also making his role debut. His tenor was at times breathtaking and he could sweep any girl off her feet with his combination of clarion high notes and the warmth and intimacy of his singing. When he was on the stage, the production gelled in a way that it didn’t otherwise.
The other standout role was that of the senior Comte des Grieux. Bass James Creswell was excellent in his singing and acting as the elderly father, desiring to protect the family name from association with the girl of dubious morals. His voice has gravitas and warmth in equal measures and he played the part well.
Manon’s cousin Lescaut, who doesn’t succeed in protecting her and getting her safely to the convent, was sung by baritone David Pershall. He is a rising star in the opera world and was well cast is this role.
Smaller roles were sung by over two dozen singers, some of whom may soon have larger roles, some of whom are stalwart members of the San Francisco Opera chorus. Every one of them sang and acted in harmony with the others, and the chorus as a whole was, as usual, outstanding. Everything was well integrated and sounded splendid.
The orchestra was brilliantly conducted by Frenchman Patrick Fournillier, who is a well-known Massenet specialist. The cast members, from stars to supporting singers, were all American. It is gratifying that there are so many young Americans continuing to study and excel at opera. A good omen for the future.
Three performances remain on 11/16, 11/19 and 11/22 (best availability). Running time is 3 hours 30 minutes, with two intermissions (a rarity these days in San Francisco), so it’s a late night even with the 7:30 start. But the music is so compelling that the time flies by. Altogether, a satisfying and heartrending night at the opera.
Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years. She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly. Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.