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Manon, the Materialistic Madonna

Los Angeles
Chandler's Pavilion
09/30/2006 -  5, 8, 11, 15, 18, and 21 October 2006
Jules Massenet : Manon
Anna Netrebko (Manon), Rolando Villazón (Chevalier des Grieux), Hyung Yun (Lescaut), David Pittsinger (Comte des Grieux), Dale Travis (De Brétigny), Ryland Davies (Guillot de Morfontaine), Hanan Alattar (Poussette), Lauren McNeese (Javotte), Michèle Losier (Rosette), Brian Calí (Innkeeper), John Kimberling (Porter of the Seminary), Michelle Fournier (Maid), Reid Bruton (Soldier), Robert Hovencamp (Sergeant)
Vincent Paterson (Director and Choreographer), Johannes Leiacker (Set Designer), Susan Hilferty (Costume Designer), Duane Schuler (Lighting Designer)
Stuart Canin (Los Angeles Opera Concertmaster), William Vendice (Chorus Master),
Plácido Domingo (Conductor).

One of the most prolific composers to emerge from Europe in the late 1800s was Jules Massenet whose success was attributed to his deftness in writing music that appealed to the audiences of the time. Under the tutelage of Ambroise Thomas, the Frenchman was also greatly influenced by Berlioz, Meyerbeer, and Gounod, and exemplified his artistic quality by scoring on a wide array of subject matters, ranging from grand opera (Le roi de Lahore, Le Cid), to verismo (La Navarraise), to comedies (Don Quichotte, Cendrillon), and to tragedies such as Werther and Manon. The latter mentioned are two of Massenet’s greatest masterpieces, and since their original performances, they have held a firm place in the standard repertoire.

Massenet’s Manon was the second of three composed (the first, Manon Lescaut by François Auber in 1856, the third, Manon Lescaut by Giacomo Puccini in 1893), originally set in the 1720s in and around Paris. But complacency exists no more.

As has been the case in recent years, there are continued attempts to create modernized versions of operatic works in order to attract an audience beyond traditional boundaries. Using the talents of Hollywood sitcom director Gary Marshall to direct last year’s performance of Jacques Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess, LA Opera followed suit once again by staging the setting of Manon in post World War II Paris under the directed energies of Vincent Paterson.

Predominately known for his sometimes controversial choreography (involving such luminaries as Michael Jackson and Madonna), Paterson jumped at the opportunity to lead a new production of Manon. His vision to portray Manon as a modern day Madonna, or seemingly material girl, is a matter of personal taste. Utilizing moving spotlights to give the appearance of Manon as a Hollywood actress, Paterson impersonated the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe at select times throughout the opera.

Choreography is another important facet, and the director’s expansive vision and expertise was firmly displayed. One of the most poignant moments was in Act III Scene II (St. Sulpice scene) with Manon’s and De Grieux’s duet “N’est-ce plus ma main que cette main presse?” De Grieux’s torment, attempting to resist Manon’s seductions by clutching one side of the wrought iron gates as Manon’s empassioned drive to pull on his cassock on the other side was absolutely riveting and powerful.

Whether or not one is comfortable with the period placement, Johannes Leiacker’s sets, nonetheless, were effective. Black and white backgrounds depicting the Eiffel Tower, Des Grieux’s interior chamber, and the Madonna and Child portrait reinforced subtle austerity, indicative of the post war era. Notwithstanding was a scene of lowbrow sleaziness such as a lighted Eiffel Tower acting as a phallic symbol lodged between the emboldened legs of a Parisian dancer found in the Hôtel Transylvanie as well as a pole- straddling stripper.

After a successful performance of last year’s Roméo et Juliette, the dynamic pairing of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón returned to LA Opera’s stage as the doomed lovers. Both singers possess an uncanny ability to sing with such ease, emotion, and intensity, yet allowing their acting talents to flourish without any hesitation. Initially, both performers exhibited a degree of nervousness and trepidation, but this soon smoothed out for the remainder of the performance. At times Villazón’s enthusiastic acting trumped his singing, causing the voice to shake, resulting in a wavering pitch. On balance Netrebko and Villazón maintained their signature vocal qualities. One of the
highlights was De Grieux’s exceptional and heartrending aria, “Ah! Fuyez, douce image”.

The other evening’s stellar performance was that of the Comte des Grieux, played by bass David Pittsinger. Pittsinger’s beautiful and rich lower register revealed the perfect portrayal of the Chevalier des Grieux’s imposing father figure, filled with authority, disgust, and love.

Making his company debut in LA Opera’s 2005 Tosca, Hyung Yun sang the role of Manon’s cousin, Lescaut. A third-year veteran of The Metropolitan Opera, Yun delivered a convincing and light-hearted soldier in uniform, displaying his confident baritone timbre. Equally talented were the obstreperous bunch of three, Pousette, Javotte, and Rosette, performed by Hanan Alattar, Lauren McNeese, and Michèle Losier, respectively. All three enlivened personalities were the perfect recipe for the opera’s so called Parisian “actresses”.

Recognition also goes to Dale Travis as De Brétigny and Ryland Davies as Guillot de Morfontaine. Guillot was awkwardly costumed in light of his stature as a wealthy suitor. Problematic, too, was his frequent inaudible voice.

Duane Schuler’s credits as Lighting Director abound throughout the international opera houses. Involved in a vast range of operas, Mr. Schuler was attuned to the details of Massenet’s work, allowing maximum affect to produce an effective and moving performance. Of particular note was how he silhouetted the figures of De Grieux carrying the deceased Manon into the sunset before the final curtain.

Since we are viewing this performance of Manon in the 1940s to 1950s, Susan Hilferty did an exceptional job with costuming all roles. Her pallet of pastel colors complimented the otherwise somber background settings, further accentuating her creativeness on stage.

General Director, Plácido Domingo conducted LA Opera’s third work of the 2006-2007 Season. Manon is a beautiful score containing rich, romantic melodies, resounding arias, punctuated with distinct chords to evoke a specific action or setting. Unfortunately, the music failed to consistently meet these expectations, hampered by deadened acoustics.

Vincent Paterson’s Manon allows room for open dialogue. Setting this historic work in the mid-1900s trips up along the way with modification of the libretto, elimination of sections of the original musical score, and exposing sordid visuals. If one can accept those limitations, then Manon will hold interest; however, if one seeks a rather staid production with dignified decorum, caution should prevail.

Christie Grimstad



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