Dallas — Tenor Stephen Costello is perfect for the role of Des Grieux in Massenet’s opera Manon, which he currently sings with The Dallas Opera. He is young and handsome, which is all well and good—but his primary advantage is that the role is written for a voice exactly like his.
This opera requires a lyric tenor, but one with more heft than usual, without tipping over into spinto territory. One of his arias, “En fermant les yeux” (“On closing my eyes”), about his dream of love, is sung very softly throughout with high notes that need to float. However, another aria, “Ah ! Fuyez, douce image” (“Ah, away, sweet image”), burns with frustration and anger. Here, we want to hear some big honking high notes: ones that would not be out of place in Puccini’s opera on the same subject.
Costello’s voice occupies that precise middle territory, at least for now. He is perfect for Massenet’s opera, although he is surely headed to Puccini’s version of the story in the near future.
“I love ‘Donna non vidi mai’ [one of the big arias from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut],” Costello says. “But singing is a longevity game.”
He is right about that. As a lyric tenor gets older, he usually moves from Rossini and Mozart to roles like Romeo (Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet), on Alfredo (Verdi’s La traviata) and then to the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Costello already sails in these waters. He delivered a marvelous performance in Houston as the Duke while still singing the lighter roles. He supplied some thrilling high notes in that performance. (My review is here.) But at this moment, he is still on the edge between lyric and spinto.
Vocally, he is right in Massenet’s sweet spot. More often than not, lacking the correctly voiced singers, casting leans one way or the other. The really lyric voices are marvelous singing his dream aria, but not so much when tackling “Ah! Fuyez.” Conversely, spinto tenors knock “Ah! Fuyez” out of the park, but have to oversing the dream sequence to get though it, ruining the effect.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Costello says. “It is hard to turn down singing a Tosca [by Puccini]. But, my agent said ‘no’ and I had to agree. He is right.”
Could and should are a mile apart for singers.
Costello also has as clear an understanding of the character of Des Grieux as he does the vocal demands.
“This guy is obviously controlled by father, intimidated, so when he meets Manon, she lets him escape, to not go home to face an angry father,” Costello says. “She is not the kind of girl you would bring home to dad, anyway.”
From there, things spiral downwards. Manon leaves him for a rich older man who can give her the lavish lifestyle she wants.
“After she leaves him, he ends up in a seminary,” Costello says, “which is such a extreme change. His father doesn’t like him becoming a priest either. For him, Manon is like a drug and he sees the seminary as a way to escape.”
Costello’s assessment matches Manon’s situation as well. When we first meet her, she also wants to escape from her family, who are sending her to a convent. They see nothing but trouble ahead for her combination of beauty and a strong desire to taste the pleasures of the world. At the first carriage stop, she sees Des Grieux, and their instant infatuation offers an escape hatch for them both. Off they go.
“Manon likes the idea of having someone to love who loves her devotedly, but doesn’t want to settle,” Costello says. “But when the cutesy-romance-in-a-cold-water-flat part wore off, she looked around at the shabby surroundings and thought ‘Am I stuck here, is this is going to be my life?’ ”
That is an understatement. He was the first man she ran into on the first stop of her journey to the convent. As a bonus, he was young, handsome and it was almost too easy to captivate him completely.
“[Des Grieux] was handy,” Costello says.
Remembering the second man she met at the first carriage stop, this one old and rich, she lands him just as easily. Life with a poor student, living on love, isn’t remotely what Manon wanted. She wants jewels and fancy dresses, servants and glittering soirées. Off she goes to the lap of luxury, but she takes one last, slightly regretful, look around their love nest.
“She sings a reflective aria saying goodbye to their little table, but she is talking about stuff, not the love she had for him,” Costello says.
Bereft and alone, Des Grieux enters a seminary to escape from even her memory, which continues to maintain its grip on his life, blocking his slim remaining chance for inner peace.
But she misses his youthful passion. She realizes that she has traded one prison for another, albeit this one is gilded. She finds Des Grieux and seduces him right in the church as he prepares to take his vows. Once again, it is not very difficult. All she has to do remind him of her “charms,” although this time he puts up some serious resistance before giving in—again.
Once again, they escape together: she from the boring, old but wealthy man and he from the cloister of the seminary.
Having learned his lesson, this time Des Grieux is determined to keep her in furs and jewels, no matter what is takes. He turns to a life of gambling and shady dealings. Of course, they are caught and their last escape is from a real prison and deportation to New Orleans. (The Paris police sent all the whores and riffraff to the Crescent City.) They manage this final escape, but she was not meant, or prepared, for a life of such hardship and she expires in his arms.
As we closed out our visit, Costello mused on Des Grieux’s possible future, based on where he is left at the end of the opera.
“After everything that happened, I feel like he would become a lost soul,” Costello speculates. “He would be too embarrassed to go back to seminary or even more embarrassed to go back to his father. He probably goes back to the apartment they shared in Paris and ended up as a grumpy old man.”
When prompted a little, Costello proffered a rosier scenario.
“Maybe,” he mused, “it’s like the ‘after opera’ life I hope happens to some other tenor characters I portray: Alfredo [in Verdi’s La traviata] and Rodolfo [in Puccini’s La bohème]. They also loved too much and lost it all. I hope they learned their lesson and moved on.”