‘Manon’ Dazzles


Reviewed by Michael Morain

When the title character in the Des Moines Metro Opera’s new staging of “Manon” sneaks into a church to persuade her long-lost lover to break the clerical vows he took to forget her—well, you can guess how things will shake out. The poor guy doesn’t have a prayer.

Manon’s voice swells above the pipe organ. She paws at him through a wrought-iron gate. And though he tries mightily to resist her, clutching a Bible, the scene ends with two bodies canoodling on the sacristy floor.

The affair started on a lark a few years earlier and will end in tragedy a bit later, plunging in emotional tone like a sunny summer day that finishes with a storm. But along the way, the glory of Jules Massenet’s 1884 score seems to shine only brighter, illuminated by the radiant talents of California soprano Sydney Mancasola, as Manon, and the Texas tenor Joseph Dennis, as the young Chevalier des Grieux. They sang so persuasively at Saturday’s opening at the Blank Performing Arts Center in Indianola that you could almost believe the unbelievable story, which is iffy even by the standards of the “biffo” or BFFO—a highly technical industry term for the “big fat French operas” of the 19th century.

But the “B” could also stand for “beautiful.” Director Kristine McIntyre, whose previous work for the company includes a dark and stark reading of “Dead Man Walking,” takes a different tack here, wrapping the stage and its players in all the glamour of Versailles in the early 1700s. Elegant sets (by R. Keith Brumley) and lavish costumes (rented from Australia) conjure up the “boudoir world” of Madame de Pompadour, as McIntyre notes in the program, when society women wielded power in a surprisingly modern way.

“They ran the most fashionable salons and were at the center of French intellectual and artistic life,” McIntyre writes. “Their purchasing power drove the economic engines of France and ensured that Paris became the fashion capital of Europe. Furniture, porcelain, clothing, decoration and art were all made to suit their tastes, and the male gaze was fixed firmly and obsessively on them.”

Nobody understands this better than Manon. When she hops off the carriage in the first scene—a girl of just 16 sent off to join a convent—men buzz around her like bees at a rose in full bloom. She locks eyes with the chevalier and, right then and there, her future career as a nun gets nipped in the bud. (If you’re keeping score, the church’s recruitment team is 0 for 2.)

Mancasola gives voice to Manon’s speedy education in the ways of the world by opening up, pumping power beneath the shimmery surface of the character’s initial flirtations. The soprano is visiting this summer between roles on much grander stages in Berlin, San Francisco and London, and it’s a treat to see and hear her in the cozy 500-seat theater.

Dennis, too, delivers the goods as the object of Manon’s on-again, off-again affection. He sings with passion—by turns tender and tortured—especially in his daydreamy aria in the first act and then at the grim finale, with Manon’s lifeless body draped across his arms.

The show benefits from the 40 handsome voices of the chorus (whipped into shape by Lisa Hasson) and a handful of supporting characters, including Manon’s protective cousin (Michael Adams), the chevalier’s worried father (Julien Robbins) and a foppish old lech named Guillot (Brian Frutiger, wearing either a powdered wig or a toy poodle, it was hard to tell).

Conductor David Neely’s orchestra is as polished as ever and sums up the spirit of the show’s three hours right in the overture. They sound whimsical at first—even rickety in the style of a period orchestra—before pumping up the power and volume. What starts with a smile ends with a shudder.

Pictured: Sydney Mancasola as Manon. Photo by Ben Easter.

Sung in French with English supertitles, “Manon” repeats on July 3, 5, 8 and 16 at the Blank Performing Arts Center in Indianola. It rotates with Verdi’s “Falstaff” (July 1, 9, 14 and 17), Gluck’s “Orphee et Eurydice” (July 2, 10, 12 and 15) and Philip Glass’ “Galileo Galilei” (July 7 and 10 at the Science Center of Iowa). For all the details about the company’s 44th season, visit www.desmoinesmetroopera.com.










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