Knoxville Opera Celebrates the Romantic Tradition with Massenet's 'Manon'

Valentine's weekend—the perfect time for flowers, candy, and the story of a young girl who must decide between true love and the comfort of material luxury. Since this is not really the shocking conflict that it perhaps once was, and since this story ends quite tragically for those who choose love over comfort, perhaps we should rethink the connection.

This is, of course, the story of Manon Lescaut, the fictional character in L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by Antoine-Francois Prevost d'Exile, and the basis for several operas, two of which have remained extremely popular in the operatic repertoire: Jules Massenet's Manon and Giacomo Puccini's Manon Lescaut. However, because each opera has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, productions of either serve to reveal not just the difference between French and Italian operatic Romanticism, but how an opera company today balances the composers' differing approaches to music and theatrical drama. Knoxville Opera's production of Massenet's Manon last weekend was a perfect example of how just such a balancing act might work.

Of the two operas, Manon certainly has the more cohesive dramatic construction, seen through the revelations of the title character's conflict. This makes it a dream for stage directors and dramatic singers. To that end, KO music director Brian Salesky and stage director Keturah Stickann filled their Manon cast with singers capable of illuminating characters through their portrayals, not just through their voices. On the other hand, the Massenet score, aimed at the popular tastes of his French audience, generally lacks the distinctive musical style found in Puccini's version. Unlike the Puccini score, in which the melodrama is written into the score and seems to fly off the conductor's baton, the Massenet score demands that a conductor carefully create his own dramatic interest for contemporary audiences by pacing and dynamics.

Singing the title role of Manon was soprano Talise Trevigne, seen previously as Gilda in KO's Rigoletto. Trevigne seems to have an ideal voice for Manon, with a gorgeous timbre that can contain both a naïve, youthful sparkle as well as a mature lusciousness. While her voice possesses a noticeably clean flexibility and is lovingly capable of thrilling coloratura moments, her strength lies in telling a story with her voice. While I never doubted for an instant that her Manon loved, I did miss defining moments in which her physical character must depict insincerity, fickleness, an iron will, heartlessness, and the arc between them and true love. Trevigne's portrayal would have perhaps been more comfortable in Verdi's Violetta (La Traviata), not altogether a negative.

Singing opposite Manon in the role of her lover, the Chevalier des Grieux, was tenor Gran Wilson. Wilson looked and moved every bit like the lovestruck young man, who, unlike Manon, is steadfast in his love and devotion. I was particularly impressed with his consistent dramatic performance and his ability to turn extremes of vocal range and dynamics into theatrically stirring moments of amorous sensitivity.

The evening's performance was filled out with a strong supporting cast of singers. Harry House gave a wonderfully pompous portrayal of Guillot, the nobleman who is spurned by Manon. Jonathan Beyer was impressive and solid as Manon's sympathetic cousin Lescaut. Scott Guinn sang the role of De Brétigny, the man of means whom Manon chooses for luxury. The always dramatically and vocally strong Andrew Wentzel sang the role of the Count, Des Grieux's father. Filling out the cast were faces and solid voices from the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre: Maria Natale, Anna Eschbach, Martha Prewitt, and Jesse Stock.

A breath of fresh air for Knoxville Opera was Keturah Stickann, making her debut as stage director for Manon. Stickann proved she was quite the master of rented wing-and-drop sets, moving the characters fluidly and naturally through them and making sure the lighting revealed the singers and their drama, and not just huge expanses of wrinkled cloth. Her frozen tableaus of background characters in several scenes were carefully painted, expressive stage pictures.

Conducting as usual in the pit was Salesky. He has proven his mastery in the past of Puccini's tight melodrama, so it was reassuring to hear him and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra take on Massenet's version of Romanticism and make a persuasive case for it.