Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

You always hurt the one you love

October 25, 2008

Natalie Dessay and Jonas Kaufmann
Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2008

No, I’m not dead. I’m just in Chicago. Which I love, especially when I see people just dressed as themselves and not in some bizarre “look” so common in my own hometown. You can take the boy out of the Midwest…. But I’m here (at least in part) for opera so let’s start with the Lyric Opera’s opening production this season of Massenet’s Manon. It’s a big ticket affair with the likes of Natalie Dessay and Jonas Kaufmann. But despite really solid performances from both, I wasn’t completely sold. I think much of it was the David McVicar production, a large open area surrounded by a slanting semi-circular gallery where period costumed revelers alternately watch and participate in the action in a sort of meta-performance way. McVicar does depravity with a twist of S&M better than anyone else these days. And, while this is ideal for Rigoletto and Don Giovanni, it makes his Manon seem strained and off-kilter. Strip-poker, bondage, cutting, and candle-wax-eroticism do have their place in the operatic world, but it kind of takes the wind out of your sails when we're talking about Massenet. Then you have the trademark muted colors and harsh lighting which drive the effect home. It just never seemed that fun or over-the-top to me.

Emmanuel Villaume conducted the orchestra in a performance that was only periodically infused with dynamics and was more often than not dragging and ponderous. The stop and start pacing killed the first two acts for me. It was like every cast member on stage had a parent in the audience and Villaume wanted to ensure that even the most minor players got every ounce of attention they could for the folks back home. Which brings me to the principals. Now I am a Dessay fan overall and vocally I thought she was adequate. But honestly, there was a little too much of the pixie-shtick here for me. I never really got the sense that her Manon was desperate or had her heart broken, though she did pout at times. I found myself longing for the richer, warmer tones of Fleming in this role, which is saying a lot considering how matronly she typically is in it. Give me Netrebko as Manon any day. Jonas Kaufmann in a very handsome and able tenor. His top notes seemed a little thin, but he gets around the stage well in a convincing manner. I never felt a lot of chemistry between him and Dessay, but maybe I’m asking too much. I will say this, though. I thought Manon's death in des Grieux' arms was perhaps one of the more convincing renditions of that scene I've witnessed. Maybe all the depravity finally paid off. In the end it's a worthwhile production with some great singing. It just left me wanting more.

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