Monday, November 06, 2017

Manon, San Francisco Opera

Ellie Dehn (Manon)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

There was a long period of time - probably around ten years - when I thought I didn't like Massenet. Then I heard Esclarmonde, his almost-Wagnerian magic opera, and also Werther, and thought that maybe the problem was that I didn't like Manon, the first Massenet opera I'd seen.

More recently, I listened to Pierre Monteux's Manon recording, with a Francophone cast except for Victoria de los Angeles, and realized that what I didn't like was the deadly conducting of Julius Rudel in SF Opera's 1998 revival of the opera. I checked Joshua Kosman's review recently, and it confirms my recollection (even at the time, I knew it wasn't good).

Saturday night, at the opening of SFO's new Manon, I mentioned Rudel to a couple of friends with long memories, and they both rolled their eyes and agreed with me. Too bad: Manon should have been a great part for Ruth Ann Swenson, and that night, it wasn't.

But times have changed, and a few changes of general director down the road, we've got a new Manon. David Gockley commissioned this production, which is a co-production with the Lithuanian National Opera and the Israel Opera and directed by Vincent Boussard. It is an improvement over 1998 in nearly every way, swapping a period production for a slightly racy cross-period design and costumes. (Cross-period to the point of dressing Reneé Rapier in a purple pants suit, no shirt, and matching purple bra.) The production was designed by Vincent Lemaire and lit, very beautifully, by Gary Marder. More about all of this later.

Ellie Dehn (Manon)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Best of all, the production has two terrific singers in the leads, and properly bubbling, frothy conducting from Patrick Fournillier, heard here previously in Cyrano de Bergerac and Tales of Hoffman. The orchestra sounded fabulous throughout, and Fournillier certainly knows the style needed to put over Manon in any believable way. (The plot, it is full of holes and character behavior that is not exactly strongly motivated. Tell us again why you've gotten religion and become an abbé after Manon apparently dumps you? and tell us why she didn't tell you about the planned kidnapping?)

Both Ellie Dehn, as Manon, and Michael Fabiano, as the Chevalier Des Grieux, were making their debuts in those roles, and neither disappointed. Dehn sounded absolutely gorgeous, with beautiful tone, spin, projection, truly impressive dynamic control, and pretty good French. She was also dramatically convincing as the pleasuring-loving Manon, just out to have a good time until her last-act demise.

Michael Fabiano (Des Grieux)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

I'm a Fabiano fan, but initially I was a bit concerned. At his Act I entrance, his voice sounded darker and thicker than in his last local appearance, as Don Carlo in the June, 2016, production of the eponymous opera. It opened up during the first part of the opera, and by the end I wasn't worried at all, although I will note that for some soft high notes, he used what sounded like a slightly croony voix-mixte. His sound and his French are really too Italian for this particular opera; the vowels were open and coming from the back of his head when they should have been forward and pointed. The sound itself was beautiful, and big. Dramatically, he seems more comfortable on stage than he used to - and he was much better directed than in Don Carlo, where he and Ana María Martínez were left adrift on the stage. He was certainly the picture of youthful ardor, and, eventually, tortured denial.

James Creswell (Comte Des Grieux)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

The smaller roles, and there are many, were mostly very well cast. James Creswell was a magnificent Comte Des Grieux, singing with plush tone and the very picture of chilly hauteur. I wanted to introduce him to Giorgio Germont; they'd make such a cute pair of nasty fathers, using essentially the same arguments to create chaos in their sons' lives. Creswell was in both Tales of Hoffmann and Mary Magdalene, but didn't make this kind of impression. More, please; such a beautiful voice.

Robert Brubaker was amusing as Guillot de Morfontaine (and his French is superb). I was not thrilled by David Pershall as Lescaut; next to Creswell and the other male singers, he sounded vocally unfocussed, though his acting was fine. 

See what "cross-period" means?
Hotel Transylvania scene

Robert Brubaker as Guillot de Morfontaine, dancer Rachel Little, Renée Rapier as Rosette, Monica Dewey as Pousette, and Laura Krumm as Javotte
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

The staging was something to see, making good use of a wall-like unit set that was used for a variety of entrances, including floating Manon in after she wanders around on its parapet. The stage was covered with a mirrored surface, which was a feature of several Mansouri-era productions. Somehow, this worked much better than those (Don Carlo, La Favorite, and others), because of the prevailing brightly colored costumes and saturated lighting. The combination of the mirrored floor and bright lighting sometimes bounced so much light into the house as the raise the light level in the audience significantly; I found myself wondering whether the lights in the chandelier were on.

The wall, topped by Parisian landmarks; 
Michael Fabiano (Des Grieux) and Ellie Dehn (Manon)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

The staging worked, for the most part, though it certainly had a few oddities, including Manon's descent from the wall:

Wall, plus Ellie Dehn (Manon); Cours-la-Reine scene
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Later in the scene, a cone of webbing descends from the flies and surrounds Manon, who runs out of it to go find Des Grieux at St. Sulpice. I have no idea what this was about. The floating balloons and packages are cute, though.

Wall, plus Ellie Dehn (Manon), plus cage o' webbing; Cours-la-Reine scene
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

See the color changes in that scene? Really, this was all very beautiful look at, and extremely effective. You hardly notice that there are hardly any props on stage. Here's Michael Fabiano in the St. Sulpice scene; note the steely gray of the wall:

Wall, plus Michael Fabiano (Des Grieux)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Not visible in any of the press photos: suspended Jesus looming over the stage at the top of the wall, with a completely black backdrop. That was a striking touch!

Here the lovers are reunited later in the scene:

Michael Fabiano (Des Grieux) and Ellie Dehn (Manon)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Mercifully, the press photos don't include the most ridiculous stage business I've seen in a while, falling into Department of Unintended Hilarity: the point where Fabiano rips open his cassock to show his great passion for Manon. The entire audience burst into laughter, which, I gotta say, really did break the mood. I have predicted that this will disappear before the end of the run.

The press photos also don't include the bit shortly after the photo above where Dehn and Fabiano re-enact the end of Act I of Die Walküre by rolling around on the floor together, which I suppose falls under Department of Sacrilege rather than Department of Inappropriate Sibling Love.

Ellie Dehn (Manon); Hotel Transylvania
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

You can't quite tell from the photo above, but between the cut of her dress and the way her hair is piled on top of her head, I'm absolutely certain that Dehn's look in this scene invoked a famous portrait of a notorious woman. She looked fabulous in the dress, too.

The final scene was beautifully staged, with the stage almost completely darkened and Dehn and Fabiano lit primarily from the side, focussing your attention tightly on them. There's a press photo of that scene, but you can't see much of the stage, alas.

All in all, I'd call this a very successful outing; it's good enough that I'm thinking of going back for more.


Michael Strickland said...

It's amusing how we basically wrote the same thing about the show. I think I walked out of that 1998 "Manon," but I wouldn't blame Julius Rudel. I heard him conduct some wonderful performances at the San Francisco Opera over the years after he left New York City Opera. Glad you mentioned the porno Jesus in Saint-Sulpice which almost made me think the ridiculousness of the staging in that scene was intentional.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ha, yes, but I'm definitely blaming Rudel. Read Joshua's review, and also, one of the knowing friends was Janos. We can't ALL be wrong about this.

CruzSF said...

You know my feelings about this opera, but your description and review of this production make me glad I didn't get rid of my ticket for this Friday.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Awright! I hope you enjoy it.

JSC said...

The "cage o' webbing" was described to us as a chandelier for the scene at the opera scene which, from what I can gather, has been cut down some. Boussard and Lemaire have basically used the exact same thing in their recent Ballo in Barcelona.

Eric Pease said...

Friday 11/10 performance: the cossack stayed buttoned and Fabiano ripped off his priest collar in passion!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ripped off his collar!

I have had a cold for two weeks and regret not seeing it a second time!