Stage Door Review

Tel Aviv, ISR: Manon

Monday, November 11, 2019


by Jules Massenet, directed by Vincent Boussard

Israeli Opera, Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, Tel Aviv, ISR

November 7-18, 2019

Manon: “Que tous nos désirs

Soient pour les plaisirs!”

Israeli Opera has opened its 2019/20 season with Massenet’s Manon (1884). While a theatre-lover’s first choice in Tel Aviv would be to see an Israeli play at one of the city’s many famous theatres – HaBima, Gesher, Cameri among others – its was my luck that during my visit none of these theatres were providing surtitles or simultaneous translation for their plays or that the productions that were were already sold out. Yet, for someone who also loves opera Manon offered the opportunity not only to see the impressive Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center but to see a well-sung English-surtitled performance of a repertory opera curiously neglected in Toronto.

In 67 seasons the Canadian Opera Company has presented Manon only once, in 1952. It has presented only three other productions of Massenet operas – Werther (1892) in 1980 and 1992 and Don Quichotte (1910) in 2014. Therefore, for a Torontonian, the chance to see Manon was the chance to see a rarity which elsewhere is not counted as a rarity.

The factors that count against Manon are that it is a grand opera in five acts in the French style, includes a ballet and is expensive with a large chorus representing wealthy travellers, peasants, gamblers, flamboyant femmes du monde, devout church-goers, prison guards and ragged female prisoners, all requiring distinguishing costumes.

What may count against it most, however, is that the title character, unlike Violetta in Verdi’s somewhat similar La Traviata (1853), is very difficult to portray as a sympathetic character. When we first meet Manon at age 15, she is waiting to be taken to a convent because her family believes she loves pleasure rather too much. During the course of the opera, closely based on the 1731 novel by Abbé Prevost, we find that Manon does live for pleasure but the types of pleasure she lives for are in conflict. On the one hand she needs true love. On the other she also need wealth and fame. One might think, especially in an opera, that having the former would obviate the need for the latter, yet Manon is not the usual operatic heroine.

The great virtue of the Israeli Opera production, a co-production with Lithuanian Opera and San Francisco Opera, is that it makes Manon’s conflicting desires feel very modern. A key point that director Vincent Boussard (or here revival director Seduikis Gediminas) makes absolutely clear is that Manon lives in a society that values wealth and fame above all things so that Manon is really simply a product of her society, a society that Massenet heavily criticizes. It is a tribute to some incorruptible part of her nature that Manon should experience true love at all given the extraordinarily superficial world in which she has grown up.

Set designer Vincent Lemaire and lighting designer Levas Kleinas have collaborated to create a brilliant effect that visually highlights the difference between Manon’s two modes of existence. Lemaire’s set consists of a completely mirrored floor and high, six-foot-wide mirrored panels that face each other across the stage inside the proscenium. At the back is an abstract swoop rising toward stage left that represents a staircase. The mirrored surfaces clearly represents a society that is unashamedly self-regarding and judges itself and everyone else by appearance. That fact that Manon admires the people of this world like the three actress friends of Brétigny, already reveals her crucial lack of judgement. In these scenes in society the lights are bright and it is easy to distinguish the curved wall with its onlookers from the mirrored floor and its dandies and femmes du monde.

When, however, Manon is alone with Des Grieux in the scene in their apartment, when she visits him in the church where he preaches and when he comforts her as she dies, Lemaire and Kleinas create a completely different effect. Kleinas trains his lamps on the mirrored floor in such a way that they reflect onto the stairway wall, blurring the distinction between the floor and the wall. Manon and Des Grieux in love thus appear to exist in a hazy place with no definite outlines outside of any physical confines.

Had Boussard restricted himself to this terrific visual contrast between the worlds of society and love, this production would truly have been a great one. Unfortunately, Boussard has complicated Lemaire and Kleinas’s great achievement with several subsidiary forms of his own imagery. In his role as costume designer, Boussard garbs the male performers in tails and top hats, or their outdoor equivalents, throughout. This is so rigorous that it is difficult to tell apart her cousin Lescault from Brétigny, a man who wants to help her. The women, however, especially Guillot’s three actress companions and the other wealthy women, he dresses in a cross between modern and 18th-century styles. If this were all it would be enough, but Boussard decides in Act 4 that he should update all the women’s costumes to the present day. This actually makes identifying who the actresses are quite difficult.

Besides this, Boussard tries to give balloons some sort of significance. When Manon runs off with Des Grieux in Act 1, her suitcase pops open and a red balloon rises out of it. In the party scene along the Cours-la-Reine in Act 3, Boussard has presents suspended in mid-air by balloons and has Manon perched on the edge of the staircase wall held up by a huge bunch of balloons. At the conclusion of her entry aria “Je marche sur tous les chemins”, Boussard has her jump off the wall landing softly on the ground. The problem is that the rigging needed for this flying is so visible that her leap comes as no surprise and the effort needed to detach her from the rigging so effortful that is destroys any sense of effortlessness the effect is meant to achieve.

Most annoying is that Boussard has taken on a French grand opera with ballet and does not give us a ballet. Massenet’s lush score suddenly turns into an unmistakable suite of faux-18th-century dances meant for the troupe of the Paris Opera that the libretto frequently refers to. All Boussard does is to have a hoop held up by glittering strings of crystals shaped like a chandelier descend partway to the floor. Manon. in all her finery steps inside and the hoop fully descends. Ah, we see now, as if we didn’t before – Manon is trapped by her love of wealth. Needless images like this and the figure of doom perched over the gamblers in Act 4 do not show the profound insight that Lemaire and Kleinas so elegantly accomplish.

Israeli Opera presents a given opera for ten performances in succession (excluding Sundays). To do this it double casts each opera. I happened to see the second cast. The undoubted standout of this cast was South Korean tenor Ho-Yoon Chung as Des Grieux. He has a beautiful, cultured voice and, ideal for Massenet, combines both passion and elegance. Chung displayed an exquisite sense of legato and draws out his high pianissimo notes to an astonishing length. His acting was also the most detailed of the troupe and his emotion-filled account of “Ah ! Fuyez, douce image”, when he tries to keep his resolve to become a priest despite his memories of Manon, received the loudest and longest acclaim of the evening.

As one might gather from the description of the plot above, the role of Manon dramatically is extremely difficult. There are many ways to approach it. She can be corrupt from the very beginning with her love for Des Grieux merely an illusion or she can be an innocent, then not so innocent, product of her corrupt society with her love for Des Grieux as her primary saving grace. Romanian soprano Simona Mihai chose this latter path and made it work very well. Mihai well projected each of the facets of Manon’s character from innocence in Act 1, to revelling in public attention in Act 3, Scene 1, to sincerely imploring Des Grieux to love her again in her most passionate aria “N'est-ce plus ma main?” in Act 3, Scene 2. While Mihai’s vibrato helped her portrayal of Manon’s fragility, it tended to counteract her presentation of the supremely confidant Manon. Mihai did, however, do justice to the coloratura sections of the role that make the role as musically difficult as it is dramatically.

In other roles Israeli baritone Oded Reich produced a velvety sound and matched it with fine acting as Manon’s serious older cousin Lescaut, who tries to save her from temptation. In opposition to Reich Lithuanian tenor Mindaugas Jankauskas used his harder-edged, higher-lying voice successfully to portray the untrustworthy Guillot, whose lust for Manon contrasts with Des Grieux’s pure love. Russian bass-baritone Denis Sedov wielded a voice of extraordinary warm and depth as Des Grieux’s angry father.

Dan Ettinger, Music Director of the Israeli Opera and of the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion, led the ISO in a fervent, well-paced account of the score. It is unfortunate that the opera auditorium itself, despite its extensive use of wood for the walls, floor and seat backs, does not have acoustics ideal for large-scale Romantic music. Despite Ettinger’s best efforts the orchestral sound remained dry and without bloom – quite unlike what one would wish for such an opulently orchestrated score as Massenet’s. When Massenet called for smaller forces or for imitations of 18th-century music, the orchestra achieved the best sound. But lushness, especially leading into fortes and including the chorus, sounded too congested to be compelling.

Manon’s satire of society and the impulse to conform with it despite its superficiality is a theme that is all too relevant and Boussard’s production, despite its flaws, demonstrated that Massenet’s work is not simply a florid romance but also has a sharp bite. Let’s hope that Boussard’s insight spurs on further productions since this complex opera and Massenet’s suavely seductive music deserves to be much more widely known.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Vincent Boussard’s Manon at the San Francisco Opera, Act 3, Scene 1; Act 2, Act 3, Scene 1. © 2017 Cory Weaver.

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