Houston Grand Opera brings Scottish director David McVicar's provocative version of Jules Massenet's Manon to the Wortham Center this month for a retelling of the classic bad-girl-gone-good story (or is it good-girl-gone-bad-gone-good?) that is both visually stimulating and a pleasure to the ear. McVicar, whose work is rarely seen in America, adds a modern and refreshing dimension of drama to the production by using dancers and chorus singers as voyeurs to the story. They lurk behind Rubenesque screens, peer from around mannequins and stare from atop Tanya McCallin's minimalist set. As Manon grieves for her lost love, whom she has cast away for fame and fortune, they applaud her as if to say, "Oh, what a great performance, you fickle trollop." They provide a social context by serving as an audience within the opera.
They also do other things, which you wouldn't want small children to see. There's some definite under-the-skirt fondling going on in one scene; in another, a woman is taking a piss. Then there's the table scene in Act IV, in which a blindfolded wench is seductively led across a gambling table by bound hands before being pushed into the groping arms of spectators. Oh, and there's kissing, real kissing, not the fake opera kind you usually see. Was Atom Egoyan's Salomé as overtly sexual?
Still, the gist of the tale is unchanged. Manon falls in love at first sight, runs away with the lucky guy, then ditches her lover when a better offer comes along, only to go back to him and pry him from the priesthood, almost ruining his life before she is sent to prison, where she dies in his arms. Ain't love grand?
So is American soprano Elizabeth Futral, who made her HGO debut last year in Of Mice and Men. It's hard to tell if her Manon is a flighty girl with fluff for brains or a modern feminist full of hedonism, but the lyrical quality of her voice makes up for the lack of character definition. In the early acts, and there are six of them (it's a long opera, though not by Wagnerian standards), Futral is a charming 16-year-old country girl whose family has sent her to a soldier cousin to be escorted to a convent. She sings in a light, almost childish voice that she was too fond of pleasure. Yet she doesn't seem wanton. Even as the Chevalier des Grieux professes his instant love for her and begs her to go off with him, she is hesitant. Futral does not show Manon's sensual side until the famous letter duet, in which she drapes herself over a table as her lover reads the missive he will send to his father.
American tenor Scott Piper, a last-minute Chevalier des Grieux sub for ailing Marcello Giordani, comes through in the clinch. In his premiere HGO performance, he's able to match Futral in the love duets; indeed, the two make some beautiful music together. And then there's that kiss, one of the greatest kisses in all opera. As Manon tempts the pious Chevalier back into her web of lust at the seminary of St. Sulpice in Act III, the lovers end their reunion with an embrace and a kiss that sends shivers down the spine. Such passion! Too bad we know that Manon, like so many opera heroines, is headed for the great beyond.
As for the visuals, McCallin's sets are Spartan, but her costume designs are rich and opulent. Paule Constable's effective lighting design makes occasional use of giant stadium lighting behind the bleacher/wall-like set. French conductor Emmanuel Joel debuts in Houston with a rousing rendition of the Massenet work, and the HGO Orchestra just keeps sounding better with each outing this season.
More French (or is that Freedom?) influence comes in the form of Marc Barrard, a baritone also making his HGO debut. As the less-than-trusty soldier Lescaut, he bestows some less-than-cousinly kisses upon Manon and then aids in the lovers' breakup. He does redeem himself by reuniting Manon and des Grieux in the final scene, but one is never quite sure where his intentions lie. He does, however, have a wonderfully rich voice and a commanding stage presence.
Overall, there's great music, a good plot, pretty things to look at -- but let's not talk about the dancing in Act III. The ballet divertissement is silly; one would expect something a little weightier and more original from Michael Keegan-Dolan, the Irish choreographer who gave us the incredible avant-garde apple scene in Ariodante earlier this year.
That aside, this Manon is certainly worth seeing, both for its own sake and for the stimulating after-theater conversation on women, wealth and sex. What do women really want? Well, maybe we want not to always die in the end, but then, "C'est la l'histoire de Manon Lescaut." And the story of us all.