For the first time in the 21st century, the San Francisco Opera presented “Manon”, the most popular of the operas of 19th century French composer Jules Massenet. The performance was the occasion of the role debuts of Minnesota soprano Ellie Dehn as Manon Lescaut and New Jersey tenor Michael Fabiano as Manon’s lover, the Chevalier des Grieux (with role debuts for virtually every other member of the cast as well.)
[Below: Ellie Dehn (right) as Manon and Michael Fabiano (left) as the Chevalier des Grieux; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Ellie Dehn’s Manon
Soprano Ellie Dehn brought luscious sound and brilliant coloratura technique to the role of Manon. As Manon, Dehn was a convincing actress, portraying a young girl who uses her beauty and sexuality to further her desire for fame and riches.
[Below: Ellie Dehn as Manon on her way to a convent; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
In this production, in her showpiece in the Cours de la Reine scene, she also engaged in an acrobatic stunt, descending (on unseen wires) from the top of a wall to the stage floor while holding a bouquet of balloons.
[Below: Manon (Ellie Dehn, center, on wall holding balloons) is about to descend into the assembled crowd; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Soprano Ellie Dehn has become an invaluable addition to any opera company’s roster of artists. She has proven to be extraordinary artist in the lead soprano roles of Mozart’s three great Da Ponte operas [Copley Directs, Luisotti Conducts, Sparkling “Nozze” Ensemble – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 2010 and A Beautifully Sung, Engaging “Cosi fan Tutte” at San Francisco Opera – June 9, 2013 and Review: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo Leads Strong “Don Giovanni” Cast – San Diego Opera, February 14, 2015] as well as an artist with the comic timing needed to be an effective Musetta in Puccini’s most popular opera [Review: John Caird’s Magical “La Boheme” Production – San Francisco Opera, June 10, 2017.]
Michael Fabiano’s Chevalier des Grieux
New Jersey Tenor Michael Fabiano has emerged as one of the finest lyric tenors of his generation. The role of des Grieux suits him beautifully as does the late 19th century French operatic repertory, which he has been exploring with great success.
The lushly dramatic Saint Sulpice scene, with its showstopping aria Ah fuyez, douce image, followed by the duet with Manon where his resistance to her charms melts away, created a War Memorial Opera House audience sensation.
[Below: Michael Fabiano as Chevalier des Grieux; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Fabiano’s resonant lyric voice is in demand throughout the world [see Review: A “Rigoletto” Surprise in Paris: Ludovic Tézier Subs in Title Role in Claus Guth’s Production with Fabiano, Peretyatko, Luisotti – May 5, 2016.]
San Francisco Opera audiences are fortunate to have seen him perform in six different roles in the past seven seasons.San Francisco Opera has cast Fabiano in less often performed roles, which have included Gennaro in Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” [Fleming, Fabiano, Frizza Fuel San Francisco Opera’s Flaming, Fulfilling First “Lucrezia Borgia” – September 23, 2011], Rodolfo in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” [Review: Michael Fabiano’s Star Ascends in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” – San Francisco Opera, September 11, 2015] and Don Carlo [Review: A Legendary Performance of “Don Carlo” at the San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2016]. He also appeared as Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme” and the Tenor in the Verdi “Requiem”.
David Pershall’s Lescaut
Texas baritone David Pershall was memorable as Manon’s conniving cousin.
[Below: David Pershall as Lescaut; edited image, based on a based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Possessing an attractive light baritone, Pershall left a strong impression as a scalawag whose announced purpose, “to save his family’s honor”, was invariably self-serving.
James Creswell’s Comte des Grieux
Washington State’s James Creswell, who possesses a resonant bass voice, brings great authority to the role of the Comte de Grieux, a nobleman concerned about an errant son living a Parisian lifestyle of which he doesn’t approve.
[Below: James Creswell as the Comte des Grieux; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Other Cast Members
The masterful character tenor Robert Brubaker played Guillot de Morfontaine, the wealthy roué courting Manon. He had to be content with the companionship of three actresses Rosette, Pousette and Javotte (respectively Iowa mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier, Georgia soprano Monica Dewey and Iowa mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm), whose sung chatter in unison is a memorable feature of the opera’s first scene.
[Below: Guillot de Montfortaine (Robert Brubaker, left) has engaged the Opera ballet (represented here by dancer Rachel Speidel Little, second from left) to further his designs for seduction, while Rosette (Renée Rapier, center), Pousette (Monica Dewey, second from right) and Javotte (Laura Krumm, right) look on; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Virginia bass-baritone Tim Mix, fresh from a principal role at the 2017 Santa Fe Opera summer festival [Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Glistening “Golden Cockerel” Starring Venera Gimadieva – July 28, 2017] effectively performed the role of the tax collector de Brétigny, who, in league with her cousin, did win Manon’s attentions for a time.
San Francisco Opera chorus members took on the remaining roles. Baritone Anders Frohlich was the Innkeeper, who had some amusing stage business in this production, and later was the Dealer and a Sergeant, in the latter role joined by bass Bojan Knezevic, tenor Michael Jankosky and baritone Torlef Borsting (who was also a guard).
Baritone Jere Torkelsen was a guard. An old lady was performed by soprano Virginia Pluth. Singing the roles of travelers were mezzo-soprano Sally Mouzon, Elizabeth Baker, soprano Carol Schaffer, Bradley Kynard, tenor Chester Piddick and Alex Taite. Tenor Alan Cochran and Keith Perry were Gamblers. Bass Christopher Filipowicz was a Voice.
Maestro Patrick Fournillier and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus
The French conductor, Maestro Patrick Fournillier, is an advocate for Massenet’s operatic works. He conducted with deep respect for “Manon’s” inherent dramatic power and with sensitivity to its layers that range from the frivolity of Guillot’s actress companions to the grand ensemble that closes the Cours la Reine scene.
He oversaw a masterful performance by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and by the Opera Chorus, under Chorus Master Ian Robertson.
[Below: Maestro Patrick Fournillier; edited image, from YouTube/San Francisco Opera.]
Vincent Boussard’s Production and Costumes and Vincent Lemaire’s Sets
In 2012 French director Vincent Boussard mounted a production of Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” for the San Francisco Opera [see my reports on his previous work at Joyce DiDonato, Nicole Cabell Sing Beautifully in Bellini’s Bel Canto “Capulets and Montagues” – San Francisco Opera, September 29, 2012 and A Second Look: “Capulets and Montagues” at San Francisco Opera, October 14, 2012.]
Both Boussard productions (the “Capulets” a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera, Munich and the “Manon”, a co-production with the Lithuanian National Opera and Israeli Opera) while true to the story, are presented not as period pieces – tied into a specific historic time – but as a universal story. Boussard, who also designed the costumes, deliberately mixes costumes from the early 18th century (the time period for which the “Manon” story was conceived), the time (late 19th century) in which Massenet wrote his opera and the current day.
[Below: the apartment of Manon and Des Grieux on Paris’ Rue Viviennes; edited image based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Boussard’s collaborator, Vincent Lemaire, designed the sets for “Manon” (as he did for “Capulets”). A diagonal wall is present in every scene, with minimalist furnishings. Balloons and gaily decorated gift boxes represent happier and more frivolous times.
Although a crowd of people will occasionally appear, usually the stage is occupied only by those persons who are the focus of that moment’s attention. This adds immeasurably to the opera’s dramatic flow.
Gary Marder designed the lighting. In dramatic moments, such as the Saint Sulpice scene, the shadows of principal performers loom large.
[Below: the Abbe Des Grieux has committed his life to God, except that . . .; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The total impact of minimalist action is dramatically effective, and shows modern audiences just how theatrically savvy Massenet and his librettists were in constructing this iconic French work.
I enthusiastically recommend the cast, production and opera both to the veteran operagoer and the person new to opera.
See also my interview at Rising Stars: An Interview with Michael Fabiano.