Sir David McVicar’s theatrically effective production of Massenet’s “Manon” returns to The Dallas Opera, starring Illinois soprano Ailyn Pérez in the title role and Pennsylvania tenor Stephen Costello as the Chevalier des Grieux.
[Below: The Chevalier des Grieux (Stephen Costello, top) affectionately tickles Manon (Ailyn Pérez) in their Parisian apartment on the Rue Vivienne; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Ailyn Pérez’ Manon
Lyric soprano Ailyn Pérez in the role of Manon was a dominant presence in all six of the opera’s scenes. From Pérez’ first scene at the Amiens Inn’s coach stop, she projected the image of a pleasure-seeking young girl, despondent at her family’s decision she should enter a convent.
Pérez was affecting in her performance of Je suis encore tout étourdie. The aria, describing her wonder at a world she had never experienced, is the prelude to her character’s quest for adventure, her chance meeting with des Grieux to her quest for love.
[Below: Manon (Ailyn Pérez) arrives at the Saint Sulpice church; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Pérez fulfilled the vocal requirements of the six scenes, including her showpiece arias. Pérez excelled in the legato singing of the hauntingly beautiful (and sentimental) Adieu, notre petite table (sung at a moment when she knew her lover would be kidnapped by his father, permitting herself to become the mistress of a wealthier suitor). She was triumphant in the brilliant coloratura fireworks of Je marche sur tous les chemins.
Her voice beautifully blended with that of Costello’s Des Grieux. Among the most memorable of the evening’s musical highlights were the Manon-des Grieux scenes within the Saint Sulpice church and Manon’s death in des Grieux’s arms at opera’s end.
Stephen Costello’s Chevalier des Grieux
In his role debut as des Grieux, the most ardent love of Manon’s brief life, Stephen Costello showed mastery of the vocally demanding music that Massenet has written for his character. The chevalier’s music for the beautifully tranquil En ferment les yeux, describing his dream of living in the provinces and raising a family with Manon, requires superb breath control, which Costello displayed with great expressiveness.
[Below: Now the Abbé des Grieux (Stephen Costello), des Grieux has convinced himself that his future lies in the structured and sexless life of the monastery; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
In his subsequent scene in the Parisian church of Saint Sulpice, Costello was impressive as the embittered victim of Manon’s deception seeking to abandon the secular world for a monastic order. Costello was passionate in his delivery of Des Grieux’ great aria Ah fuyez, douce image, in itself a principal reason why tenors gravitate to this role.
Edwin Crossley-Mercer’s Lescaut
In an evening of the McVicar production’s nicely delineated characters on the make in early 18th century Paris, French baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer proved an amiable Lescaut. Totally convincing as Manon’s amoral cousin, Crossley-Mercer dispatched Lescaut’s brief lyrical moments, especially his ballade O Rosalinde impressively.
[Below: Lescaut (Edwin Crossley-Mercer) gestures holding paper money from the gambling tables; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
David Pittsinger’s Comte des Grieux
As the paterfamilias who guards the des Grieux honor and reputation, David Pittsinger proved an authoritative Comte des Grieux in the three scenes in which he appears.
[Below: David Pittsinger as the Comte des Grieux; edited image,based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Other Members of the Cast and Crew
Character tenor played William Ferguson played the sinister Guillot de Morfontaine with distinction. Troy Cook was a convincing Brétigny. The gold-digging coquettes Pousette, Javotte and Rosette were respectively Katherine Whyte, Kathryn Leemhuis and Audrey Babcock.
Graeme Jenkins conducted with affection. E. Loren Meeker, the revival stage director assured that McVicar’s intentions were met by the Dallas cast. Kevin Sleep designed the lighting, Colm Seery was revival choreographer and Alexander Rom was chorus master.
Sir David McVicar’s production
David McVicar’s conceptualization of this iconic late 19th century French work, created for the English National Opera in 1998 and performed by The Dallas Opera in 2001 at its Fair Park venue, is another of the “world treasure” productions that The Dallas Opera has brought to Texas.
[Below: Manon (Ailyn Pérez, seated, second from right) ignores the Opera Ballet that has been commissioned at great cost to impress her; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
I described its basic features when I reviewed the production’s appearance at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2008 [Kaufmann Astonishes, Dessay Enraptures, in McVicar “Manon”: Lyric Opera of Chicago – October 15, 2008]. It is designed to reflect the Paris of three centuries ago whose settings are more tawdry than had been the classic 20th century style of presenting “Manon” in ancien régime luxury.
[Below: Pousette (Katherine Whyte), Rosette (Audrey Babcock) and Javotte (Kathryn Leemhuis) show affection to Lescaut (Edwin Crossley-Mercer, center) whose gambling winnings attract them; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
The infrastructure is decaying – represented by McVicar’s unit set comprising an arena wall with places for the spectators to stand. Both the unit set and luxurious silk costumes were created by set and costume designer Tanya McCallin.
Privacy is non-existent – servants and neighbors spying on everyone. (Manon and des Grieux are only alone on stage in two scenes – at the church of Saint Sulpice and at her death).
[Below: the Chevalier des Grieux (Stephen Costello, seated right) plays in a fateful card game with the wealthy roue Guillot (William Ferguson, seated left) as Manon (Ailyn Pérez, far right) looks on; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
The social order in which Manon strives to succeed is driven by sex and money. In this society even Manon’s recognition that des Grieux is her true love (ironically leading to the seduction of des Grieux, the would-be monk, on the floors of Saint Sulpice) cannot be reconciled with des Grieux’ vision of provincial peace. Against both his will and his better judgement, des Grieux follows Manon to the gambling tables of the Hotel Transylvanie, where their hopes of a future together are shattered.
I recommend The Dallas Opera cast and Sir David McVicar’s production of Massenet’s “Manon” enthusiastically, both for the veteran opera goer and the person new to opera.