Opera does not get much more sumptuous, at least not in Washington, than the new production of Massenet's "Manon" that had the first of six performances Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Designed as a showcase for Nelly Miricioiu, this "Manon" demonstrates brilliantly the versatility of that superb soprano, who has already dazzled Washington audiences in "La Traviata" and "Lucrezia Borgia" and will be back in the fall for the Washington Concert Opera's "Thais."
Miricioiu is vocally brilliant and dramatically touching as the young woman whose dream of "a life of endless pleasure" dooms her lover to despair and herself to an early, squalid death. Massenet's exquisite melodies and harmonies ("perfumed music," as a critic once called it) are well interpreted under conductor Cal Stewart Kellogg. The music, in combination with Zack Brown's luxurious sets, provides an ideal framework for Miricioiu's performance. But this "Manon" is not a one-woman show; Miricioiu is part of a skilled ensemble effort that maintains a high level of quality all the way, from the distinguished acting and singing of tenor Neil Rosenshein as the love-struck Chevalier des Grieux to the carefully directed, silent stage business of the lowliest supernumerary.
Miricioiu's exquisite solos stopped the show on opening night -- notably "Adieu, notre petite table" ("Farewell, our little table") and "Obeissons, quand leur voix appelle" ("Obey the tender voice of love") -- but Rosenshein's "Fuyez, douce image" ("Depart, fair image") was on the same level, vocally and dramatically. In their duets, the soprano and tenor reinforced one another's strengths, notably in the touching death scene and, above all, in the Saint Sulpice scene, which was the most torridly erotic event on the Opera House stage since the Dance of the Seven Veils in "Salome" last year.
But the flavor of this "Manon" comes equally from the vivid crowd scenes -- the coach house in Act 1, the festive atmosphere of the Cours-la-Reine scene, the driven hedonism of the gambling scene in the Hotel Transylvanie, even the wordless desperation of the female convicts being marched into exile in the final scene. Director Roman Terleckyj has choreographed these scenes effectively. The chorus, directed by Thomas Beveridge, sings with clarity, power and elegance.
In the strong supporting cast, special commendation must be given to Jonathan Green, who has been singing character roles with the Washington Opera for years -- usually brief, pungent parts such as Sellem in "The Rake's Progress," Triquet in "Eugene Onegin" and Goro in "Madame Butterfly." In "Manon," he makes the old reprobate Guillot de Morfontaine a monster of wimpish lechery and malevolence. Excellent work is done by Theodore Baerg, who is fast becoming a company favorite, in the role of Manon's cousin, Lescaut, and by Alan Held, already a company favorite, in the role of the Comte des Grieux. Malcolm Walker, in his company debut as de Bretigny, seemed qualified to return in larger assignments, as did Kenn Woodward in the tiny role of the innkeeper. Edrie Means, Gloria Parker and Janine Hawley sang with a fine sense of ensemble and acted with an equally fine sense of frivolity as Guillot's three companions.
When you look at "Manon" carefully, it seems to have less than meets the eye -- one vivid character, quite a few casting cliches, a series of coups de the'a~tre, loosely strung together with a plot whose central motivating factor (Manon's "betrayal" of des Grieux) is rather weakly presented. But Massenet's exquisitely sensuous music makes any shortcomings seem unimportant, and in this well-calculated production it is allowed to work its charms to the fullest. It shows what the Washington Opera can do at its best.