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San Francisco Opera

In Review SFO Manon hdl 1117
Act III, Scene 1 of San Francisco Opera's production of Manon, featuring Ellie Dehn in the title role
Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
In Review SFO Manon lg 2 1117
Michael Fabiano's des Grieux and Dehn
Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

JULES MASSENET DIDN'T WRITE an opera titled Des Grieux, but it often seemed that way at the San Francisco Opera’s new production of the composer’s Manon (seen Nov. 4). With the first appearance of tenor Michael Fabiano, making his role debut as the lovestruck chevalier, an otherwise disappointing production acquired a large measure of dramatic urgency and vocal brilliance.

Marrying delicate strains of sensuality and nostalgia, passion and regret, Massenet’s 1884 opéra comique poses particular challenges in production. The temptation to impose a twenty-first-century perspective can be jarring, and so it was with this Manon, the company’s first since 1998, when Julius Rudel paced Ruth Ann Swenson, Jerry Hadley and Rod Gilfry in John Copley’s staging. Despite a vivacious orchestral reading led by French conductor Patrick Fournillier, a Massenet specialist, the opera’s charms were often blunted in the heavy-handed staging by stage director Vincent Boussard, another French-born artist. Boussard’s staging was previously offered at Lithuanian National Opera, a co-producer with SFO and Israeli National Opera, in 2016. 

The central feature of Vincent Lemaire’s unit set was a long, sloping wall flanked by mirrored panels; each new scene brought a few minimal decorations, until Manon finally met her end on a bare black stage. Boussard’s concept ran from distracting to grim to risible: the lovers’ Paris apartment appeared to be set in a culvert; a woman, strung up by one wrist, dangled motionless over the gambling scene; Des Grieux ripped open his cassock, baring his chest before embracing Manon at Saint-Sulpice. The director also designed the costumes, which favored garish contemporary wear—bright-hued gowns for the women, tuxes and top hats for the men—suggesting the ever-present conflict between old wealth and the nouveau riche.

This split emerged as the central argument of the director’s concept; yet, for the most part, the opera’s intimate moments between its principals proved the evening's most effective. The reason was Fabiano. Singing his first Des Grieux, the tenor gave a powerhouse vocal performance, his strong, muscular instrument registering with assurance, tonal allure and a sense of the nobility absent elsewhere in the production. Ardent in the Act I duet, richly expressive in “En fermant les yeux,” the tenor’s finely etched performance of “Ah! Fuyez, douce image” seemed the essence of romanticism. 

In the title role, soprano Ellie Dehn made a hazier impression. Dehn—who replaced soprano Nadine Sierra, the originally announced Manon, before rehearsals began—has the top notes for Massenet’s heroine, but she projected weakly in her middle register, particularly in the opera’s early scenes, when her singing ranged from inexact to inaudible. Dehn gained in stature as the performance progressed, delivering a touching “N’est-ce plus ma main.” Still, it was hard to avoid the sense that this was an incomplete assumption: despite her wayward acts, Manon must project a core of fragility and pathos that was scarcely in evidence here.

In the supporting roles, bass James Creswell’s handsomely sung Des Grieux père made the strongest impression. David Pershall’s energetic Lescaut, Timothy Mix’s robust Brétigny, and Robert Brubaker’s leering Guillot made apt contributions, and Monica Dewey (Poussette), Laura Krumm (Javotte) and Renée Rapier (Rosette) minced convincingly as the trio of actresses. The chorus sang lustily.

But this was Fabiano’s night—and Fournillier’s. The conductor drew vibrant sound from the orchestra, shaping Massenet’s insinuating motifs and deftly layered orchestral textures with precision and clarity.  —Georgia Rowe 

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