Michael Fabiano milks Liceu’s Manon for every last melodramatic drop

SpainSpain Massenet, Manon: Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu / Marc Minkowski (conductor). Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 24.4.2023. (SS)

Gran Teatre del Liceu’s Manon © David Ruano

Director – Olivier Py
Sets and Costumes – Pierre André Weitz
Lighting – Bertrand Killy
Choreography – Daniel Izzo

Manon Lescaut – Amina Edris
Chevalier des Grieux – Michael Fabiano
Lescaut – Alexandre Duhamel
Conte des Grieux – Laurent Naouri
Guillot de Morfontaine – Albert Casals
de Brétigny – Tomeu Bibiloni
Poussette – Inés Ballesteros
Javotte – Ana Tobella
Rosette – Anaïs Masllorens
Innkeeper – Pau Armengol

Olivier Py, probably the most flamboyant gay Catholic to emerge from the French opera world since Francis Poulenc? I am generalizing from a grand total of two previous encounters with his work, but it is an association that readily springs to mind and one that Py himself seems to have happily cultivated. Truth told, the two productions I saw were hardly mind-blowing in substance or style, but I made a mental note to check in again with something more appropriate foe him  – Tosca or Dialogues or Manon. It seems Py really is drawn to the sacred-profane binary, because I didn’t have to wait long.

And sure enough, vice and virtue is the angle Py takes throughout this Liceu production – first seen in Geneva in 2016 – of Massenet’s most successful opera. It doesn’t take much to trigger the taste police elements of the opera-going public, but your mileage may vary, as did mine. Yes, there are skimpy sequin dresses and disco balls. Yes, there’s red light district scenography. And yes, there is a twinky trio of go-go dancers. Most reviews have deemed this stage business to be an overly titillating distraction. But overall, it was frankly about as debauched as an episode of Emily in Paris.

Py does pull off a coup de théâtre with his glitzy burlesque take on the Cours-la-Reine scene, in which a rhinestone-laden Manon sashays her way down a huge staircase to a choreographed routine from the go-go boys, now in Chippendales attire. Imagine a cross between an MGM musical number and Magic Mike Live and you get the picture.

This and a few other scenes in this staging call for a Manon willing to serve more diva camp than Amina Edris was able to muster, and as one of the supposedly more seasoned faces at Py’s den of vice she barely bothered to look convincing. Was that a conscious choice to put a more positive spin on the character? There was an opportunistic glint in her eyes in the gambling scene, but that was as far as Edris went in exposing the fickle, vain, sybaritic side of Manon, and she otherwise stuck to an oddly wholesome portrayal. At times, this gelled improbably well with a production that is basically set in a brothel – you could imagine her as a tart with a heart who now wants out of the business. Certainly, Edris’s Manon was believably committed to Des Grieux and believably invested in building a better life for herself. And her singing was technically assured throughout, with good French diction.

I last saw Michael Fabiano in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Aix Carmen. He stole that show and he steals this one too. He had an intense but not overblown stage presence as Des Grieux, backed up by serious acting ability, emotionally intelligent singing and thrilling squillo. The oomph he brought to the production sometimes verged on jaw-dropping: the Saint-Sulpice scene was white-hot, gut-wrenching stuff and Manon’s arrest electrifying. I normally love tenors about as much as Richard Strauss did, so consider this high praise.

Alexandre Duhamel’s characterization of Lescaut – overly protective with a mean streak – was well fleshed out, leaving more of an impression than his workmanlike singing. It was good to see classy veteran Laurent Naouri as a stern Comte des Grieux, his voice a little frayed but still carrying plenty of gravitas. Albert Casals was a simpering Guillot. The supporting cast were all solid.

This was my first time hearing the Liceu orchestra live – a very decent ensemble that more than kept up once the singing got exciting, but which nobody is going to mistake for the Vienna Philharmonic. My rule of thumb with Marc Minkowski is to avoid him in canonic repertoire (a constipated Schubert symphony cycle followed by an equally disappointing Der fliegende Holländer put me off for good), but make a beeline for anything else he does and prepare to be charmed and occasionally wowed. In this Manon, he really came through. Making merely pretty music sound beguiling and compelling is Minkowski’s secret conducting superpower, and one that a composer like Massenet certainly benefits from.

Sebastian Smallshaw

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