It is not easy for an opera company to follow a spectacular production of La Traviata with Massenet’s Manon. 

While both works draw on a similar narrative – the fallen woman torn between a life of untethered pleasure and her more honorable instincts; a brief moment of true love too perfect for fate to leave alone; reconciliation and untimely death – Traviata is an altogether nobler work of art. Verdi’s protagonist is so pitiable that we cannot help shedding tears for her, and his music so simple and direct that – as the cinematic Salieri said of Mozart’s music, changing any note “would mean diminishment.”

Not so Massenet’s darkly comic variation on similar themes. As I had to keep reminding myself while I watched its new production at SF Opera last week, Manon is a different animal, musically and narratively. Its protagonist, unlike her courageous and strong-willed cousin Violetta, frustrates us with her inconstancy and lack of discipline. While her love for the Chevalier de Grieux is undeniable, equally undeniable is her addiction to the admiration and love of others.

Adulation is the coin of her realm, and she basks in it with the fervor of Scrooge McDuck diving into his pool. And musically, while Massenet may rival Verdi’s elegance, his long-winded, luxurious compositional language is hardly a replacement for the latter’s noble Italian honesty. But after reminding myself enough times that nobility was hardly the point in this narrative and sound world, I was able to appreciate this production on its own terms. For Massenet, it was very good.

Swapping out music director Nicola Luisotti for Massenet guru Patrick Fournillier, the SF Opera Orchestra set the tone with a sumptuous musical landscape. From the gilded delicacy of Massenet’s baroque French dance quotations to the reverent hush of the St. Suplice church scene, Fournillier drew a high level of detail out of the orchestra. Unlike Luisotti, who (brilliantly) presides over the performers as a sort of whip-wielding horseman, Fournillier actually seemed to hold the sound of the orchestra in his hands.

This tactile approach coaxed precise transitions out of the singers and players even in Massenet’s stretchy soundscape. He coordinated perfectly with Ian Robertson’s (as always) expertly prepared chorus, moving seamlessly between a cappela choruses and rich orchestral climaxes.

While Manon may not be a noble soul, the character of the Chevalier de Grieux does provide an opportunity for the same sort of self-possessed dignity embodied by his cousin Alfredo. And Michael Fabiano, the unequivocal musical star of this production, rose to that challenge. With rare lyricism at even the fullest dynamics, and the countervailing ability to draw the audience in with a silky intimate head voice, his performance made his effortless conquest of Manon utterly believable, and even charming.

In his portrayal of the famous St. Suplice scene, in which Manon implores him to leave the monastic life and return to her, his defensive steely tone melted down to resignation as he acknowledged that he had tried, foolishly, “to put God between me and the world.” If there was a flaw in Fabiano’s performance, it was the young tenor’s tendency to go from zero to sixty a little too fast. Occasionally, rather than giving Massenet’s luxurious phrases the opportunity to develop, he would overwhelm their drama with premature climaxes of dynamic, vibrato and tone.

His counterpart Ellie Dehn approached the character of Manon with bubbly effervescence. Like her character, Dehn was at her best when called upon to be flashy or performing alone, particularly when negotiating highly ornamented coloratura material, with which Massenet is by no means stingy. In perhaps the quintessential aria of Manon, Obéissons quand leur voix appelle, in which Manon flaunts her luxurious Parisian lifestyle, Massenet even gives her an onstage audience. Dehn, clutching a fistful of balloons, gave the aria the buttery elegance of an old-time French gavotte debased by nineteenth century decadence.

Her bird-like tone fluttered around the aria’s tricky corners, coquettish and elusive. But for all her strength with the coloratura, Dehn was also versatile. In her rare darker moments, such as the Frenchified “When I am laid in earth” that closes the second act, Dehn’s tone darkened to match.

Dehn’s girlish portrayal of Manon, however, was less effective in her more intimate scenes with the Chevalier. While a good match for Fabiano in tone (their duets proceeded with fewer pitch problems than those of Aurelia Florian and Atalla Ayan in last month’s Traviata) she was no match for his volume. But what Dehn may have lost in comparison to Fabiano’s vocal bravura she more than made up for in an acting performance that was one of the best of the year at SF Opera so far.

Dehn vividly captured the hamartia at the heart of Manon’s character: her inability to realize that not all of life is a performance. Her uninhibited Manon demonstrated that even for the most charming, vivacious, or sexually attractive among us, there are limits to what those prized qualities can buy.

Manon and Grieux’s caustic romance benefited from the comedic foil of a well selected supporting cast. In the role of Manon’s jealous and domineering cousin, Lescaut, David Pershall offered a sinister foil to Fabiano’s hot-blooded genuineness (albeit one whose French diction was sometimes suspect). In the first act, Pershall’s overaffection toward the newly arrived Manon sowed doubt as to whether ‘protecting the honor of the family’ was truly his greatest motivation in warding off potential suitors. Though serviceable, baritone Timothy Mix seemed somewhat vocally overmatched in his portrayal of Lescaut’s partner in crime, De Brétigny.

The three actresses Poussette, Javotte, and Rosette, who form part of Manon’s Parisian posse (played by Monica Dewey, Laura Krumm, and Renee Rapier), provided perfectly timed and coordinated taunts and other outbursts throughout. Particularly memorable was their magpie-like heckling of the perpetually frustrated Guillot de Morfontaine in the first act.

But among Massenet’s sparingly used supporting roles, James Creswell in the role of the Chevalier’s father the Comte de Grieux, was head-and-shoulders above the rest. Creswell’s rich but soft-edged bass tone gave his third act protestations against his son’s monastic escapism an air of tender pathos. Creswell distinguished himself both as a soloist and in his duet singing with Dehn, offering a more fitting counterpoint to her light tone than the explosive delivery of Fabiano.

Vincent Boussard’s stage direction seemed predicated on the idea that the opera would succeed most if the cast were willing to go a little over the top, matching the less-than-disciplined nature of the material. This cast, fortunately, had no trouble with that. A couple particularly memorable images: Pershall literally convulsing in disgust as Dehn tried to convince him to behave reasonably toward the Chevalier; or in the church sanctuary scene, Fabiano brandishing his crucifix at the remonstrating Manon like garlic in the face of a vampire.

So in the moments when Massenet’s music was unable to hold my interest, Boussard’s staging was. He was not entirely able to galvanize our interest in the bloated chorus introduction to Act III, but then again I’m not sure whether doing so is humanly possible.

For fans of Massenet, Manon is worth seeing for Dehn’s glowing inhabitation of the lead role. And those less enthralled with Massenet will delight at experiencing a great and continually developing tenor talent in Fabiano. Overall this was a very good production that didn’t quite rise to the level of last month’s Traviata, but it’s close.

Photos: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera