Dallas — Ailyn Pérez has been on a role roll in Texas. For the Dallas Opera, she created the role of Tatyana Bakst in the world premiere of Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie’s Great Scott (my review here). Tatyana is young, clueless and voracious soprano with her eye on the shortest possible track to stardom—and the goods to make it. My rollicking interview with her and another outstanding cast member, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, is here.
From that comic characterization, she made a sharp about face in Houston portraying the opposite: a woman to whom dignity is everything, the heartbroken Countess in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. She was marvelous; my review is here. Now, she returns to Dallas to play the leading role in Massenet’s gorgeously romantic masterpiece, Manon. Again she plays a young girl with lots of determination who is out on her own. Manon wants true love but wants a luxurious lifestyle more. What to do, what to do?
Next season in Dallas, she will play another Tatyana; this time, she is the ill-fated heroine in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a woman who grows up too late.
Ever since Pérez burst on the scene, fresh from a sweep of all of the awards named for tenors (Richard Tucker and Plácido Domingo), she has portrayed most of the leading soprano roles in the standard repertory in major opera houses around the world to universal acclaim. In 2013, she sang a series of stunning performances as Violetta (in Verdi’s La traviata) in Hamburg, Munich, London and San Francisco. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2015 as Micaëla in Bizet’s Carmen and will return next season. The list goes on from there.
Opera News, as quoted on her website, summed her up perfectly: “The phrase ‘an embarrassment of riches’ might have been invented to describe the combination of talents that belong to Ailyn Pérez…who truly seems to have it all.”
Anthony Tommasini, the distinguished New York Times critic put it this way: “Her voice has a distinctive timbre, with plaintive richness blended into its youthful bloom…Ms. Pérez, a beautiful woman who commands the stage, has the makings of a major soprano.”
His prophetic use of the future tense has come to pass.
The title character in Manon, which opens on Friday, March 4 at the Winspear Opera House, is very different from other “young girl” characters in her repertoire. We see her in various stages of her short, but disastrously eventful, life. She is the same, but different.
“She goes from ingénue to femme fatale without even trying,” says Pérez.
When we first meet her, she is very young indeed and on her way to a convent, sent there by a family that saw nothing but trouble ahead for this extremely beautiful and high-spirited girl. At the very first coach stop, she captivates a handsome young man, the Chevalier des Grieux, and runs off with him to Paris (so much for the convent).
But she can’t resist being a pampered pet of a very rich man when the opportunity presents itself, regardless of the results of her decision on the unfortunate Des Grieux. She feels sorry for him but, hey, she tried living with a poor student in another soprano role and that didn’t work out so well.
When she learns that her former lover is taking the vows of priesthood, she hunts him down. This has to be stopped. His steadfast refusal notwithstanding, and using all of her “charms,” she convinces him to run off with her...again.
Things quickly go downhill. They turn to gambling to finance their boom-and-bust ragtag lifestyle and soon run afoul of jealous rich men. The pair ends up arrested on trumped-up changes: he as a cheat and she as a prostitute. Convicted and imprisoned, they are scheduled to be deported to New Orleans (back then, a repository for the dissolute criminals from France; no comment). On the way to the dock to get on the ship, the two lovers have a brief reunion and she dies in his arms. Her last words, in their final duet, are words from in their first duet “Et c'est là l'histoire de Manon Lescaut." (And this is the story of Manon Lescaut.)
“Manon is eager to leave girlhood behind and become woman: she wants its all, to live life to the fullest and savor everything” says Pérez. “She wants to be alive to the hilt. But I have to keep it mind that this is completely a man’s version of the story.”
This is absolutely true and not frequently mentioned. The 1731 novella, by the Abbé Prévost, is written as a monologue, long after the related events, as Manon’s hapless lover tells a priest the story of his ruinous experience, ever since the moment he first saw Manon and fell hopelessly in love with her. The novella was banned as immoral (a surefire way to get it read).
But Pérez doesn’t see Manon as a Barbie doll or scatter-headed, pretty high school cheerleader-type gone astray, as she is all too often portrayed.
“She knows her power,” says Pérez, “and she keeps it with her the whole time, right to her final breath. She embodies exactly who she is and doesn’t give her power to any man. Carmen loses her power by falling in love. Manon falls in love but keeps her power: always thinking about how she wants to live every day of her life—and that is to have a lot of fun.”
As to the unfortunate Des Grieux, Pérez says that Manon really loves him, as proven by her eventual return. But, them’s the breaks.
An aside: I must add is this little detail. Des Grieux would have been part of the landed gentry, instead of penniless, if his father hadn’t disowned him when they ran away together. But, in Manon’s world, that wasn’t her fault.
“We all want True Love,” Pérez adds, looking back over her last three Texas roles and forward to the next. “The clueless Tatyana in Great Scott wants true love, but from an adoring audience. The Countess had true love but now is desperate to regain her philandering husband.”
“Manon also wants true love,” she adds, “but she just can’t help herself.”