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Swenson Beguiling as Massenet's Heroine

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
10/15/1998 -  and 17, 20, 23*, 25, 29 October, 1 November 1998
Jules Massenet: Manon
Ruth Ann Swenson (Manon Lescaut), Jerry Hadley (Chevalier des Grieux), Rodney Gilfry (Lescaut), Michel Sénéchal (Guillot de Morfontaine), Louis Otey (De Brétigny), Alain Vernhes (Comte des Grieux), Peggy Kriha Dye (Pousette), Tammy Jenkins (Javotte), Pamela Dillard (Rosette), Armando Gama (Innkeeper), Don Anderson (Innkeeper's assistant, Attendant at St. Sulpice, & Sergeant), Jere Torkelsen (First Guard), William Pickersgill (Second Guard), Valentina Simi (A maid), Jim Croom (A vendor)
Orchestra, Chorus and Corps de ballet of the San Francisco Opera, Julius Rudel (Conductor)
John Copley (Director)

The San Francisco Opera has produced Manon regularly over the last couple of decades, but Ruth Ann Swenson's appearance in the title role made this an especially welcome return of one of Massenet's most popular operas. The delicate charms and sensuous appeal of this version of the story of Manon Lescaut and her lover, the Chevalier des Grieux (Jerry Hadley) were served up in generous portions with Swenson's graceful, musical performance and a strong supporting cast.

Tito Capobianco originally staged the production with sets by David Mitchell and costumes by David Walker in 1971 for Beverly Sills. The visual elements have held up well with their Watteauesque backdrops and atmospheric sense of elegance. A little more attention to detail would be been in order (such as removing the swing on the tree in the first act since they had, unfortunately, dispensed with its use rather than just attaching it to the trunk), but for the most part it is still a handsome production.

For this revival, some 220 of the show's 350 costumes were newly designed and built. Some fit in well to the original design, some stood out for all the wrong reasons, and some disappeared at all the wrong times. Manon's costumes were new and none of them were improvements on the originals. However flattering they may have been on Swenson individually, and she did look lovely throughout, they frequently clashed with those around her, such as her scarlet gown in the gambling scene set again the orange, hot pink and fuchsia colors of Pousette, Javotte and Rosette. Or she simply disappeared into the crowd in scenes such as the Cours-la-Reine where her pale pink gown lacked any accents to give the soprano focus and make her the visual center of the scene as she should have been.

But the visual shortcomings were minimized with Swenson's radiant, beguiling performance. Vocally she was in seductively fine form, her creamy legato caressing the lines of "Adieu notre petite table" and her pinpoint accurate coloratura sailing through the Act III Gavotte. Swenson's Manon began as a sweet but superficial young girl, entranced and delighted with the adventure in which she finds herself. But as Manon courses through her hedonistic life, in Swenson's performance, she also gains depth and complexity, so that by the time she faces her end in the final act, the loss is palpable and deeply moving.

As her lover, Jerry Hadley gave one of his most dramatically involved, convincing performances. On saw des Grieux on-stage rather than Hadley. From his budding attraction to Manon to his anguish over her loss Hadley gave a focused, detailed performance. Vocally, he was at his best in the opening scenes, with a graceful, nuanced "En fermant les yeux." Later, his voice seemed on size too small for the demands of "Ah! Fuyez, douce image". Perhaps due to lingering effects of the ailment he had suffered earlier in the run, the top did not soar with its usual freedom and clarity.

Rodney Gilfry's Lescaut cut an imposing figure on stage, but his characterization lacked much in the way of individuality. Vocally, his strong, virile baritone served him well as the swaggering officer.

Michel Sénéchal's Guillot de Morfontaine was another in his gallery of impeccably created character roles. Whatever his vocal limitations may be by now, they hardly matter so inseparably are the words and notes interwoven to create both character and situation with vigor and precision.

Louis Otey's company debut as De Brétigny and Alain Vernhes's U.S. debut as the Comte de Grieux were both welcome additions to the season's roster. In particular, Vernhes' elegant, smoothly produced, cleanly focused tone and shapely sense of line made both his aria "Epouse quelque bonne fille" and his contribute the finale in the gambling scene models of bel canto singing. Otey's rich dark-hued voice and strong, confident presence made a telling and sharp contrast with Sénéchal's fussy, irascible Morfontaine.

Peggy Kriha Dye, Tammy Jenkins and Pamela Dillard were a lively trio as Pousette, Javotte and Rosette, respectively. Each in turn provided fine individual contributions but combined equally well in their frequent ensemble participation.

Director John Copley was largely ineffectual in uninventive in his staging, letting the story take its own course and leaving the performers up to their own devices at times. Details such as an effective staging of the abduction of des Grieux at the end of the second act were overlooked and what was left was embarrassingly amateurish. The opening of the Cours-la-reine scene consisted of having the entire chorus crowding downstage as much as possible, losing any sense of the spatial requirements of the scene or establishing the moment.

Julius Rudel has long been associated with the French repertory, having conducted it here in 1981 with Reri Grist in the title role and recorded it with Beverly Sills. But this time around, he seemed indifferent to the sweep and arc of each scene, contenting himself instead with the filigree details of Massenet's score. As a result, while the atmosphere of each scene was keenly evoked, such moments as the finale of the gambling scene lacked architectural shape and made little impact.

In sum, this Manon was about the singers and the performances more than the drama and the music. Still, with Swenson in the title role and a well cast production in general, the rewards were ample and the result strongly on the credit side.

Kelly Snyder



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