The Case of the Vanishing Opera: Massenet's "Manon"

Massenet’s Manon is one of those operas that in the last few decades seemed to have fallen through the cracks, in terms of performance and recording. Probably there are a number of reasons for this – no single factor that made operagoers, or opera stagers, fall out of love with it for a while.

It may have suffered from confusion with the other famous work,  Manon Lescaut. It may have been so peculiarly a work of its time – sort of nineteenth-century “mixed media” -- that companies considering its staging found themselves unsure of quite how to handle it. What do you do with the ballet sequences, for example? Why spend dancers’ wages and rehearsal time on something that doesn’t particularly seem to drive the plot?  There may also have been an issue surrounding the grueling demands the opera makes on its voice talent – demands sometimes likened to “singing a marathon”.  Why try to stage a work that you can’t find anyone willing to sing?

And it probably doesn’t help that the opera itself is a touch subversive -- full of what at first glance seem like well-worn operatic tropes that in the hands of the gifted Massenet turn into something completely different. For example, right at the outset the operagoer  is shown one of the great traditional operatic scenarios, the Innocent Young Girl Swept Off Her Feet By The Older Man or Rake. Normally the Innocent Young Girl is completely out of her depth in these situations, entirely fixated on the new lover. But Massenet, sly and unpredictable storyteller that he was, immediately starts sending you messages that not everything in this story is going to go the usual way. As Manon – mere hours earlier on her way to the convent – falls for the first of her two beaux, and they sing together of how they’ll go to Paris and be together, just the two of them, it’s not precisely the togetherness that Manon lingers over. “Paris…”  she sings longingly. “In Paris…”

Perhaps this is the biggest of Manon’s problems: the famously conservative audience of opera tends to shy away from something that doesn’t follow the long-laid-down “rules”. Despite being sung by great names such as Illeana Cotrubas, Beverly Sills and Edita Gruberova, despite its ravishing music and thought-provoking plot, Manon gradually fell a little out of favor in recent times.

But as many trends eventually do, this one seems to be reversing, as houses looking for something fresh to perform rediscover works that just by virtue of being out of the public eye for a while are better placed to display their virtues. In 2007, soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Roberto Alagna starred in a well-reviewed revival of the piece at the Vienna Staatsoper, and Netrebko then repeated the success in Berlin's Staatstheater unter den Linden with Rolando Villazón, under Daniel Barenboim's baton (in a debut for the conductor). After that followed a flurry of other performances, with Nathalie Dessay singing opposite Villazon, and Netrebko singing the title role again opposite Vittorio Grigolo at Covent Garden.

So Manon would appear to be firmly on the operatic map again, the most recent demostration of this being the new production of Manon being staged at Theatre St. Gallen from February to May of 2011. Siphiwe McKenzie Edelmann makes her debut in the title role of this freshly realized production, under the direction of the notable television and film director and music scholar Jan Schmidt-Garre, auteur of films such as Opera Fanatic, who brings a cutting-edge vision and decades of media and musical expertise to bear on a work that richly deserves to be in the spotlight again. Conducting is David Stern, head conductor and music director of the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv, and son of the renowned violinist Isaac Stern.

Siphiwe’s next performance dates in Manon are: February 27, March 23, March 27 and May 28.