Dallas — It was quite a revealing experience to attend opening night of The Dallas Opera’s production of Jules Massenet’s Manon having just seen Puccini’s version of the story, Manon Lescaut, at the Metropolitan Opera. They had much in common, such as a unit set and nixing the elaborate Louis XV era costumes and powdered wigs. Another is that both TDO and the Met cast singers of a similarly world-class quality.
This is not really a surprise because the two stars in Dallas, soprano Ailyn Pérez as Manon and tenor Stephen Costello as Des Grieux, both have Met credits and will return next season in major roles. The French baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer, in the other main role of Lescaut, has sung in most of Europe’s major houses. He made headlines in 2013 singing the role of Figaro (Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro) in a production staged by the LA Philharmonic Orchestra and under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel.
The Dallas Opera’s production stays away from setting the opera in a specific time period, an error the Met made by shoehorning the action into the Nazi occupation of France. In Dallas, David McVicar’s 2001 production, as staged by E. Loren Meeker, is more 18th century vague, which avoids the Met’s anachronistic clashes and allows for a great variety of costumes from realistic to parody. A curved and slightly canted wall serves as the background for the entire opera and also offers a stack of levels from which many in the chorus can view the action.
Pérez is magnificent as the ill-fated Manon—vocally and dramatically. The character is usually portrayed as too beautiful for her own good and a victim of her desires. She abandons true but penniless love for the life of luxury offered as a courtesan, then back to her distraught student when she was bored and finally leading both of them to ruin by her insatiable desire for riches.
Pérez, on the other hand, is a woman who knows her own power. Her actions, while sometimes incorrect, are always motivated by trying to make the best of the situations in which she finds herself. She sincerely loves the heartbroken Des Grieux, the young student who rescued her from a life in a convent, but Pérez’s Manon is deeply conflicted about what to do when she learns that his father is going to intervene. Unless she accepts the very generous offer from the wealthy nobleman, she would be a 16-year-old woman alone in the world. Unlike others in the role, Pérez shows us her despair at such a choice. Through it all, her deep love for Des Grieux never falters—and we know it.
When Manon learns that Des Grieux is about to take his vows of priesthood, most Manons seek him out and seduce him to run off with her and live a life on the edge. Pérez plays it differently. She realizes that if he takes his vow, she will never be able to repair the damage she did to him and rebuild the life she sacrificed. While the end result is the same, her so-called seduction is something else: a desperate attempt to remind him of the joys they once shared.
Their final ruin is, indeed, her fault for suggesting a life of gambling to support themselves, but Pérez makes it clear that this is an act of desperation in the face of bankruptcy rather than her desire for finery. Their final meeting, a short visit her brother arranged with a corrupt prison guard, is almost too devastatingly sad to watch. There is little left of Pérez’s Manon, only her overwhelming regret. She musters the energy needed to express this to the distraught Des Grieux and expires in his arms.
Vocally, she is amazing. She has a glorious voice, moving to spinto territory, with secure high notes and remarkable flexibility. She is equally impressive at full volume or when floating a super soft sound. But she is doing more than just singing. Every note is part of a phrase that communicates the words and the emotions behind them. It reminds of the stage presence of someone like Maria Callas.
Stephen Costello is well known locally and has impressed before. He was wonderful in the Dallas Opera’s world premiere of Moby-Dick. He is also a singing actor, equal to Pérez, but his character is not as complex. But he certainly conveys deep love for Manon and a conflict over her actions. Vocally, he is in his prime and sounds even better than he did recently at the Houston Grand Opera as the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto.
Edwin Crossley-Mercer turns in an excellent portrayal of Manon’s easily corrupted cousin, Lescaut. His pliable baritone also conveys the text in a vivid manner. Tenor William Ferguson plays the elderly roué, Guillot de Morfontaine, wearing an outlandish wig and hobbling around with a cane. Troy Cook tries to give Brétigny a shred of dignity. As Des Grieux’s father, David Pittsinger shows more affection to his reputation that to his son. Guillot’s three female “attendants” make for a delightful trio: Audrey Babcock, Katherine Whyte, and Kathryn Leemhuis.
The always-fascinating staging, with a whiff of danger throughout, borders on choreographed movement. The stage is often crowded and busy, sometimes to distraction, with lots of things going on at once. There are even some eye-popping sexual shenanigans, especially in act four’s gambling den of iniquity.
The ballet, imported for Manon’s entertainment (choreographed by Colm Seery), ends in a brawl. Alexander Rom’s excellently prepared chorus members are involved in the action. They are Peeping Toms, sometimes observing in the bleachers afforded by the set and other times lurking behind the furniture.
Graeme Jenkins, music director emeritus, is a center of calm in the storm of verismo-influenced French opera. He matches the excitement on the stage but is always in control, keeping the music in Massenet’s perspective. His tempi keeps the opera moving forward, never letting the musical pace lag or pause to luxuriate in its own beauty. Balance with the stage is excellent and the orchestra responds to his solid baton technique and intelligent concept of the score.
This production is a Manon to remember, and makes the case for more productions of other Massenet jewels.