Manon – Jules Massenet

Manon – Jules Massenet

The Abbe Prevost’s 1731 novel, L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, was the inspiration for no less than three operas, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, as well as two Manon‘s, the popular Massenet and a pretty much forgotten version by Auber.

Our heroine, a country girl first encountering the ways of the world, is charming and beautiful. Alas, she is subjected to the temptations of luxury and pleasure and seduced into a life of selfish indulgence. We are offered brief hope that she might find her way to loving her number one man unselfishly. But no, it is only a momentary respite from her descent into the shallow life of the libertine, for which, needless to report, she must pay dearly.

The abbe, a Benedictine, had a checkered history of his own, finding and losing his church calling more than once, and serving in the military as well – highly qualified, then, to create for us a morality tale. If CV sounds somewhat flippant, it is because we have never found this libretto to be convincing or profound. We put aside our interest in serious drama with meaningful characterization in exchange for the melodic gifts of M. Massenet, deliciously evident here . When well sung, we, too, are perfectly willing to be seduced by the sensual pleasures of lovely music. Fortunately we do not expect to pay the price of exile in Louisiana (the Puccini version), or death on the road to Le Havre (the Massenet version).

In one of his few casting achievements of San Francisco Opera’s 1998 season, General Director Lotfi Mansouri brings us the most charming and accomplished soprano on the boards today, Ruth Ann Swenson. As heard at the October 29 performance, Ms. Swenson was in glorious voice, pure and dulcet tones in every register, sweet and seductive in softer passages, soaring beautifully in the big ensemble numbers. Ms. Swenson’s poised and unaffected interpretation of the role is as fine as can be imagined. Brava!

Our tenor for the evening, Jerry Hadley, whom we have admired at other appearances, is said to have been having health problems during this engagement. In kindness we will say no more than to wish him a speedy recovery, both of his health and of his high register.

For once, the supporting players were all up to the occasion, with the able assistance of Maestro Julius Rudel in the pit and intelligent stage direction by John Copley.

- Arthur Lazere

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San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.