During the waning years of the 19th century — what's now known as the fin de siècle — the Parisian opera stage was crammed with sex. The public couldn't get enough. Reigning divas clamored to be bad girls, and librettists supplied countless tales of virginal beauties who hit the skids for a life of glamour and a diamond necklace. Like it is today, sex was the best way to create controversy and sell tickets, and composer Jules Massenet knew a good thing when he saw it.
At the time, Massenet was the crown jewel of French music, with impeccable taste and an unerring ear for melody that was both sensual and sentimental. His talents were recognized early, and through nonstop perseverance — his detractors would say kissing ass — he became the richest, most famous composer in France.
When he decided upon Abbé Prévost's cautionary novel from pre-Revolutionary times, the novel Histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux and de Manon Lescaut, whose title he pared down to Manon, Massenet found his masterpiece. He chose his librettists wisely. Henri Meilhac, co-author of Bizet's Carmen and writer of many of Offenbach's sparkling operettas, and Philippe Gille, fresh from Delibes's exotic Lakmé, were theater pros who instinctively knew how to give Parisians what they wanted. They tamed Manon into a lush romantic drama with theatrical sweep and plenty of downtown lowdown.
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Dewy Manon, preoccupied with pleasure and sent packing to a convent, is soon seduced by worldly temptation. Her cousin Lescaut, sent to meet her, is such a profligate rascal that he tries to pimp her out to the rich fop Bretigny. But Manon already has met and fallen in love with young Des Grieux, who was instantly smitten with her. Forgetting everything, the young couple rushes off to Paris, but Manon is soon bored and restless. After Bretigny tempts her with a life of riches, she goes off with him, betraying Des Grieux. As the toast of Paris, she mocks the nobleman Guillot, who vows revenge for the slight, but Manon's thoughts never stray from her true love, who has entered an abbey. Through her seductive aria "Isn't This My Hand Pressing Yours?" she wins him back. But once again, her need for luxury outweighs love. Guillot accuses Des Grieux of cheating at gambling. Des Grieux and Manon are arrested, and she is condemned to deportation. When Des Grieux finds Manon on the road to Havre, she is near death but confesses her love before dying in his arms.
Massenet overlays the ancien-régime melodrama with gavottes, arias of crystalline beauty and choruses that immediately set the scene, whether he's conjuring a crowded outdoor inn, fashionable boulevards or spinning roulette wheels. His tunes shimmer. Is there a sweeter song than Des Grieux's reverie of life without Manon, "When I Close My Eyes"? The entire aria doesn't take much longer to sing than it does to say the title, but it so deeply reveals Des Grieux's intoxication, it takes your breath away. When Massenet's at his best, you're constantly out of breath.
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Opera in the Heights wisely allows Massenet's pearl of an opera to glisten without too many distractions. Maestro William Weibel keeps the rococo nice and warm. Thankfully, the sets are minimal: The famous table from Manon's famous aria "Goodbye, Our Little Table," a topiary or two for the inn scene, and five papier-mâché rocks for the road to Havre. The costumes aren't so fortunate. They follow no color scheme that I could decipher, and cover every historical era except the pharaonic. Manon is supposed to dazzle, not stupefy.
Fortunately, her interpreter is the beguiling soprano Jacqueline Noparstak, who tosses off Manon's gay coloratura with brightness and dexterity that quickly makes us forget what she's wearing. When she sings "When I Die, I'm Going Out Laughing," we believe her. And her enticement to Des Grieux to come back to her, "Isn't This My Hand," has us in the palm of her hand, too.
Her inamorato, tenor Timothy Birt, croons his way through the opera. He hits all the notes but doesn't seem to care very much about character or motivation. He holds his own in the ravishing duets with Manon, but then reverts to perfunctory singing and acting with the others. Baritone Yoonsang Lee makes an intriguingly bitter Lescaut, and the opera's trio of wiseacre characters — Javotte, Rosette and Pousette — is comically created in the round by Rachel Ross, Heather Scanio and Stacey Weber. Tenor George Williams, an OH veteran, embraces the period flavor. He parlays the character of jealous Guillot into a finely etched cameo. Powdered and rouged, he'd be right at home in a Molière satire.
When Manon premiered in 1884, audiences flocked to it. Critics wondered whether it was wise "to frighten mothers and cause young girls to dream too much." Awash in Massenet's sumptuous, descriptive music, it's still wise, very beautiful and very French.