It is 19 years since San Francisco Opera last staged Jules Massenet’s Manon, and this weekend sees the opening of a new production by French director Vincent Boussard – co-produced by Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, and the Israeli Opera. It features two role debuts – soprano Ellie Dehn in the title role, and tenor Michael Fabiano as her lover the Chevalier des Grieux. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus (Director Ian Robertson) are led by Massenet specialist, French conductor Patrick Fournillier, who conducted Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac for the Company in 2010 and Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann in 2013.
Manon, a five-act opéra comique, premiered in Paris in January 1884. The French libretto, by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille, is based on the 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, by a Benedictine monk Prévost d’Exiles, about a wilful girl who is torn between true love and a desire for wealth and luxury. Considered scandalous at the time, it was immediately banned. Massenet and his librettists took a fair amount of poetic license with their adaptation of the story, as did others, such as Puccini, who wrote another opera, which he called Manon Lescaut, in 1893. The character of Massenet’s Manon, is however, neither wilful nor conniving – as she appeared in the original novel. Rather, he presents her as frivolous and impetuous, and possibly rather naive.
The story he tells is of the beautiful young Manon, who – on her way to a convent – stops in Amiens to see her cousin, Lescaut, and there falls for the handsome young Chevalier des Grieux. They run away to Paris together, but – fascinated by the wealth of an older man, De Brétigny – she deserts des Grieux for a life of luxury, and the fashionable salons of Paris. When she hears that, in his heartbreak des Grieux has decided to become a priest, she rushes back to him, and they set up home together once more.
Living a life of poverty, des Grieux and Manon are forced to resort to gambling, and ultimately both are arrested on a charge of cheating. She is also accused of prostitution. Des Grieux’s father manages to have him released, but Manon faces deportation to a penal colony. Her cousin Lescaut travels with des Grieux to Le Havre – from where her ship will be departing – in the hope of rescuing Manon, but she is desperately ill. Begging her lover’s forgiveness for her frivolity and past misdemeanors, she collapses, and dies in his arms.
Ellie Dehn was last seen for San Francisco Opera during this year’s summer season when she sang the role of Musetta in Puccini’s La bohème. Known for her versatility, Ms Dehn has a wide repertoire, has become known as a specialist in works by Mozart, and has appeared on the stages of some of the world’s major opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, Teatro alla Scala, The Royal Opera House, Bayerische Staatsoper, Los Angeles Opera, Houston Grand Opera, San Diego Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Santa Cecilia, and the opera houses of Geneva, Rome, and Bologna.
Later this season, Ms Dehn will make her company debut at Dallas Opera as Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. She will return to Grande Théâtre de Genève as the Countess in Figaro Gets a Divorce – a modern addition to the Figaro trilogy composed by Elena Langer – and will again sing the role of Musetta in Puccini’s La bohème at Teatro di San Carlo di Napoli.
American tenor Michael Fabiano, a firm favorite with opera audiences in San Francisco, sings the role of des Grieux for the first time, in this production. It’s also his first role in French for San Francisco Opera. Having won both the Beverly Sills Artist Award and the Richard Tucker Award in 2014, Fabiano hasn’t looked back. In 2015 he made international headlines, stepping in to sing the role of Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera at only seven hours’ notice.
Following Michael Fabiano’s appearance in Massenet’s Hérodiade in 2016, The Washington Post wrote: “I’ve raved before about Michael Fabiano. . . , but I don’t know that I’ve ever heard him sing with the clarity and power he brought to the role of Jean (John the Baptist) on Sunday, his sound heroic and translucent, with no evident strain, culminating in a showstopping performance of his aria Adieu donc, vains objets in Act IV”.
This current season is proving to be one of exciting opportunities for the American tenor. His first engagement was the role of Rodolfo in The Royal Opera House production of Puccini’s La bohème in September. Conducted by Anthony Pappano, it was the first new production of this opera by the ROH in over 40 years. During the season, Michael Fabiano returns to Covent Garden to appear as the Duke in Rigoletto – a role in which he makes his Los Angeles Opera debut. He will be back at the Metropolitan Opera to sing the role of Rodolfo, and once again appear as Edgardo, a role which he will also perform in Opera Australia’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor.
Described by The Observer as “….. surely one of the most electrifying singers on the Met’s roster”, Michael Fabiano will achieve international exposure as well, since The Royal Opera productions of La bohème and Rigoletto, as well as the Metropolitan Opera’s La bohème, will be screened globally in HD during the season.
The cast for San Francisco Opera’s production of Manon also includes baritone David Pershall as Manon’s cousin Lescaut, bass James Creswell as Comte des Grieux, baritone Timothy Mix as the wealthy De Brétigny and tenor Robert Brubaker as Guillot de Morfontaine. Soprano Monica Dewey makes her Company debut as Pousette, mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm is Javotte and mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier is Rosette.
Sung in French with English supertitles, Manon runs at the War Memorial Opera house for six performances, until November 22. For more information and tickets, please visit the San Francisco Opera website.
Sources of information:
San Francisco Opera program notes