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Massenet's Manon, with which Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 2008/09 season Sept. 27, is the Frenchest of French Operas. It is not a Greek tragedy, nor is it a theatrical exercise in the manner of Bertolt Brecht. Yet these elements more than intruded on the music in David McVicar's staging. Choristers, arranged in stadium-style tiers, commented on the action with multitudes of oohs, aahs and ha-has. In the most intimate scenes, involving only a few characters, extraneous supers peered around corners and fiddled with props for the principals, along the anti-illsionist lines of Brecht. McVicar's depiction of the Hotel de Transylvanie gambling scene as Hogarth's Bedlam was an interesting idea, but Lyri's printed program made an error in running a drawing that revealed that establishment to be extremely elegant.

As is customary with Lyric, musical matters were on a high plane. Natalie Dessay was in glorious form as Manon. Her voice was crystalline in tone and astonishingly accurate in execution in the past, but here a warmth and richness was newly added. Another improvement over past performing habits was dropping an excess of characterization for dramatic interest. Jonas Kaufmann's dark tenor is not a regulation des Grieux voice. His labored delivery on opening night may have been due to a lingering effect of the illness that prevented him from appearing are a pro-season Lyric concert. Raymond Aceto was impressive as the elder des Grieux, but Christopher Feigum's Cousin Lescaut was mostly small-toned. An outstanding supporting performance was from David Cangelosi, who avoided overdoing Guillot, singing well instead of cackling, convincing as both a foolish old man and a dangerous villain. Among the trio of courtesans, Andriana Chuchman carried the top line beautifully in a role that was among the first successes of another Canadian soprano, the young Teresa Stratas. Chuchman sounds as though she, too, is on the way to a bright career. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume paced the long score magnificently, drawing sumptuous sounds from Lyric's orchestra.
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Author:Covello, Richard
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Dec 1, 2008
Words:329
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