Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Party girl


Ellie Dehn in the title role of Massenet's "Manon." Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
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The fourth offering of the San Francisco Opera's fall season opened last week with a lush production of l'opera tres francais de Jules Massenet, "Manon." The Belle Epoque saga of a party girl narcissistically travelling down the road to ruin fairly reeks of expensive perfume and French Catholic hypocrisy, but that only adds to our enjoyment of Vincent Boussard's emotionally charged direction.

With Lithuanian associate director Gediminas Seduikis (SFO debut), he creates a timeless background to make a melodramatic point: everyone loves to watch the rise and fall of a celebrity. We wallow vicariously in their excesses, but ultimately demand their comeuppance.

Boussard has also designed the opulent costumes, recalling the elegance of Massenet's 19th-century Paris. They pop against Vincent Lemaire's strikingly minimal set design, and the stage is evocatively lit by Gary Marder's color palette of blues and purples. Boussard's vision proves less effective in crowd scenes, where he gives either too much or too little direction. He also ends the first two acts somewhat anti-climactically. Both are cleverly done, but lack punch.

His practice of letting things happen offstage is most frustrating in the first scene of Act III, when everyone sings about a ballet to be performed on Manon's whimsical demand, and which then proceeds to cut the music and the dancers. One audience member wondered if they weren't in the budget, but if the director had wanted them, they would have been there. He most likely didn't want to slow the flow. For an opera comique, there is an awful lot of music in "Manon."

Alternatively, Boussard pulled all the stops out for the famous second scene of Act III in the seminary of Saint-Sulpice. It gave new meaning to a bodice-ripper romance, and proved he can bring a curtain down with impact when he wants to.

The titular heroine first appears as she makes her journey to a convent school. Her parents hope it will cure her disturbing desire for material pleasures, but she is much too eager to contain. Naive and clever is a dangerous combination.

Michael Fabiano as Des Grieux in Massenet's "Manon." Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Enter handsome and fervent Chevalier Des Grieux, and Manon seizes on his instant enchantment. They escape to an intimate life of sin in Paris, but bigger and more sinister forces are in play. The manic beauty is willingly seduced onto a bigger stage of extravagant living, and she leaves her lover without understanding the consequences of her actions.

Pop celebrities have a limited shelf-life, but Manon becomes the undisputed toast of the town. Her downfall seems all the more swift and devastating. It is a plum assignment for a soprano who can handle Massenet's huge vocal demands. The composer also provides a potential tour de force for tenors who can embody the intense Chevalier.

Making their highly anticipated role debuts, Ellie Dehn and Michael Fabiano thankfully fulfilled expectations, and often surpassed them. Supporting roles were also well-cast, and Ian Robertson's reliable SFO Chorus sounded great whenever they could sing without being herded inelegantly on or off stage.

Baritone David Pershall was sympathetic as Manon's cousin Lescaut, and tenor Robert Brubaker, making his third appearance in a production this season, was amusing as the debauched old Guillot de Morfontaine. He is enjoying his opportunities creating memorable character parts.

Finnish-American baritone Timothy Mix was a convincing De Bretigny, the man who launches Manon's dizzying social spiral. Bass James Creswell, as Des Grieux's cautioning father the Comte, has a sonorous voice and imposing stage presence.

Supporting females are given less to do, but mezzo-sopranos Laura Krumm and Renee Rapier still commanded attention as the "actresses" Javotte and Rosette. Soprano Monica Dewey made her successful SFO debut as their charming cohort Pousette. The trio earned laughter and applause.

One laugh that may or may not have been intentional exploded at the end of Act III, when hunky Fabiano tore open his cassock to reveal his heaving, manly chest. It also got one of the night's heartiest rounds of applause and underlined Boussard's canny understanding of the genre.

Des Grieux's throwing his cross to the floor and mounting Manon was as startling a moment as her descent to the stage floor by balloon earlier in the act. It's great show business; little wonder Massenet and his librettists (and the author of the original novel, Abbe Prevost) had to punish them both in the end.

Conductor Patrick Fournillier led the orchestra in a wonderfully persuasive reading of the score. He is a noted champion of Massenet's intoxicating music and he proved it, adding notable weight and transparency.

For Ellie Dehn, Fournillier's support was crucial. She has a good range and lovely clear tone, but I was glad to hear her stratospheric high notes emerging so clearly above the orchestra. Her Gavotte, the famous self-praising ode to youth and beauty in the Cours-la-Reine scene, was achieved effortlessly. She grew in stature throughout the night to make her pitiable death scene effective.

Despite the obvious commitment, her acting seemed detached when compared to Fabiano's overwhelming passion. We are no longer calling him a rising star. His early career has already placed him in the ranks of world-class tenors. With big international debuts and prestigious awards to his credit, the thrilling and confidently out young singer (he tweeted, "ENGAGED to the love of my life, Bryan McCalister" last August) still returns to SFO as a spiritual home-base, and he gives his Northern California fans increasing reasons to be thankful. Singing Des Grieux has been a dream for him. We got to see him ace it here.


"Manon" continues in repertory through Nov. 22.


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