Sunday, August 28, 2016

Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's clear-sighted concept and beautiful singing give Manon flesh in New York

French composer Jules Massenet's Manon is a large undertaking but that didn't prevent one of New York's little players, dell'Arte Opera Ensemble, from giving it a beautifully sung and insightful production. As part of a two-week season entitled Violetta and her Sisters, Manon was presented with La Traviata at Baruch College Performance Arts Centre's Rose Nagelberg Theatre in midtown Manhattan.

Olivia Betzen as Manon and the dell'Arte Opera Ensemble cast
Director Victoria Crutchfield's concept not only shows intellect and vision but she gives it dynamic heart and well-handled form. Nina Bova's beautifully realised 18th century costumes did much to enhance Courtney Nelson's simple platformed set design featuring modern bits of furniture disguised by hints of classic styling and cutout props. The overall visual effect was assisted by Mary Ellen Stebbin's astute, dramatic lighting.

Premiering at Paris's Opéra-Comique in 1884, the five-act tragedy is based on the 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost. Pronunciation of Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille's French libretto was a little raw in dialogues but on most accounts French singing parts hit the ears admirably.

In Crutchfield's interpretation, Manon appears as a young, perhaps 1970s dressed woman who we encounter during the overture, peering longingly at an elegantly gowned mannequin through a large LED-lit frame, a shop window of sorts. Once she steps through, the fairytale begins but Manon's desire to live the look of high status is dependent on the men who'll pay for it. Little forgiveness is afforded her as the fairytale ends tragically before she has barely entered womanhood.

Olivia Betzen as Manon and Sean Christensen as des Grieux
In her subtle turn of the head and steeling glances as she eyes the Chevalier des Grieux, soprano Olivia Betzen gave immediate clarity to the 16 year-old Manon, who is sent off to a convent because, we're told, she enjoys herself too much. Was she unruly? Perhaps. Was she morally wayward? Perhaps not yet. Was she gifted with the quality to explore her world? Most definitely.

Betzen swung from episode to episode with telling gestural finesse and she gained more and more expressivity in her voice as the sometimes coquettish, playfully laissez-faire and self-conscious Manon needed. The top of the voice smoothened as the acts went by but Betzen's final act of portraying Manon's despair and surrender was as complete as you could want.

With aristocratic stiffness mixed with impassioned impetuousness as Des Grieux, tenor Sean Christensen gushes with charismatic vocal warmth. As a young artist who you can see stepping out successfully onto a larger stage, at least on this one, Christensen's Des Grieux was sensitive, confident and mature while giving credibility alongside Betzen's Manon.

Sean Christensen as des Grieux and Nick Webb as Comte des Grieux
Stan Lacy was an impressive, oaky, resonant-voiced presence and powered meaning through the text as Manon's brawny cousin Lescaut. In other fine performances, as Comte des Grieux, des Grieux's father, Nick Webb brought robust authority, Nobuki Momma distinguished himself as Brétigny and Andrew Surrena stood tall as the crafty and vengeful Guillot. Fine feminine cavorting accompanied Kristina Malinauskaite, Perri Sussman and Hilary Grobe's cheeky huddling as the three actors Poussette, Javotte and Rosette.

A 19-piece orchestra set to the side of the stage area played expertly under Music Director and conductor Chris Fecteau's considered music-vocal balance. For its good size, however, the strings could have provided greater richness of sound.

With the audience numbering less than 100, I was wondering where the almost 4,000-strong audience members at the Met disappear to when there's so much more opera to get closer to in a production such as this. It's easy to take for granted the spectacle such as one sees at the Met, like its own lavish Manon which was last staged just this year. Here, dell'Arte Opera Ensemble inspires, like so many of its kind around the world, because it shows just how much hard work is involved in getting there.

Production Photographs: courtesy of dell'Arte Opera Ensemble

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