S&H Opera review

Massenet, Manon, Opera de Paris, June 27, 2001 (FC)

The skipping young girl just off the stagecoach and ready for the world was indeed soprano Renée Fleming (I had to check with my opera glasses…yes it was). It was opening night at the Bastille and the eagerly anticipated final production of the Opéra de Paris season; a rare opportunity to catch one of the reigning queens of the opera stage in a role in which she has already achieved much critical acclaim. This production, first seen at the Bastille in June 1997, also stars tenor Marcelo Alvarez, and was designed and staged by Gilbert Deflo.

Starting slowly, Fleming seemed a bit distant and not totally involved during the first two acts. The acting was good but the delivery with without a great deal of nuance and passion. Were her critics correct? Is there more style than substance to her career?

In the Third Act, bejeweled and dressed in red, this diva began to sing like the opera magazine cover girl she is. She seemed to sense the pending triumph after a virtuoso delivery of the famous gavotte "Obéissons quand leur voix appelle," and the rest of the performance was spot on and splendid. It was an outstanding achievement for this fine soprano at the top of her form.

The Argentine tenor Marcelo Alvarez, as Chevalier des Grieux, was world-class and utterly engaging and the two made an attractive pair of lovers. His Act II aria, "En furmant les yeux" was delivered with quiet intensity, and with such impeccable style, it was magic at the opera. He has fine range and good timbre. He sang with an appealing warmth and passion and also scored a significant triumph. His French was adequate and there was the text projected above the stage if anyone had questions.

I herewith nominate, as the first inductee into any future operatic Hall of Fame, tenor Michel Sénéchal. His performance of Guillot was an absolutely perfect jewel and last year he celebrated 50 years on stage! Commanding a full and pleasing voice even at this stage in his life, he also knows how to inhabit a role and bring it to life like few others.

The other roles were also impressively sung. Jean-Luc Chiagnard was a fine Lescaut and Franck Ferrari was a blustery Bretigny. Baritone veteran Alain Vernhes sang, with particular strength and beauty, the role of Des Grieux pére. Worthy of mention too is the trio of women, Jaël Azzaretti as Poussette, Isabelle Cals as Javotte and Delphine Haidan as Rosette. In smaller houses around the world they would have lead roles and all three were terrific.

The production, by Gilbert Deflo, was handsome and consisted of massive, dark curvilinear shapes serving to carve up the soccer-stadium size stage into manageable bits. This, and the lighting, by Joël Hourbeigt, which highlighted the tables, chairs and beds that were the focus of the action, made for a simple and effective staging of this work. The minimal décor and splendid costumes, by William Orlandi, were of the period and appealing. Well known Spanish conductor Jesus Lopez-Cobos, while not exactly a "routiniere," did not find much magic in the score but did fine some nice detail and good balance.

If the intention of the Paris Opéra management was to give the audience something to remember during the summer recess, now that the strikes are a distant memory, it would seem that they succeeded. The July 7 performance will be broadcast live at 7:30 PM CET on France Musiques and most likely on other radio stations in Europe.

Frank Cadenhead

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