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Macatsoris embraces the minutia of 'Manon'

Christofer Macatsoris, the Academy of Vocal Arts' music director, revels in exploring musical details and expressive subtleties, qualities that form the essence of Jules Massenet's classic "Manon."

Christofer Macatsoris

, the Academy of Vocal Arts' music director, revels in exploring musical details and expressive subtleties, qualities that form the essence of Jules Massenet's classic "Manon."

During his 30 years leading the conservatory, Macatsoris had never conducted the work - the most famous of French operas, along with "Faust" and "Carmen" - until now. And he has the advantage of two native French-speaking sopranos to share the title role.

"Manon" is the tale of a naive teenage girl, on her way to join a convent, who suddenly discovers romance and luxury - though unfortunately not with the man she loves, the poor Des Grieux. She chooses a courtesan's opulence rather than a life with him, though there's no doubt of her love.

The mystique of Manon is that she is completely selfish, yet endearingly honest. After a dramatic card-game scene, Manon, in the tradition of operatic heroines, meets a tragic end en route to the French port of Le Havre.

Eight years after Massenet, in 1893, Puccini composed a quite different opera, "Manon Lescaut," based on the same story. It has much more beautiful music - if less accurate geography, since Puccini's Manon perishes in the "deserts of Louisiana."

Massenet's "Manon" has sections of spoken dialogue and a curious kind of singing that is partly conversational to emphasize the importance of the words. And it's quite long, with a ballet in the full production, so conductors are confronted with selecting essential cuts without removing too many gorgeous moments.

The current production, staged by Dorothy Danner, has a double-cast roster featuring Manon Strauss Evrard and Joyce El-Khoury in the title role. Manon's lover Des Grieux will be sung by tenors Steven Costello and Michael Fabiano, and her cousin Lescaut will be portrayed by Eric T. Dubin and Christopher Bolduc.

Northeast Philadelphia-born Costello, in his final year, already has achieved national recognition for his superb singing. He'll appear in "Cyrano," to premiere here next season in a joint production of the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Curtis Institute. He's also in next September's opening production of "Lucia di Lammermoor" at the Metropolitan Opera.

Macatsoris, who could have accepted notable assignments at the nation's finest opera houses, has remained at the academy though sheer dedication to its original mission as a tuition-free training institution. Because of his thoroughness of preparation, and that of the school's other vocal coaches, a legion of stars are now in demand on the world's stages.

To honor his enormous influence and impact on Philadelphia's arts community, Macatsoris will be presented with the Musical Fund Society Award at Tuesday night's annual members' gathering, called the Collation.

Coincidentally, Costello also will receive the society's Career Advancement Award that night.

Back in the 1960s, Macatsoris remembers being assistant conductor for a Philadelphia Lyric Company production of "Manon" with two legends, soprano Anna Moffo and Russian tenor Nicolai Gedda.

There's a church scene that requires an organ and, when the organist didn't show up, Gedda insisted that Macatsoris play the part, though he had never played organ pedals or multiple keyboards. He did his best, but Gedda screamed at him afterward and, in the process, taught him a huge lesson: always be prepared.

Macatsoris' high level of preparation and detail was evident recently in his study, where he was finishing up months of marking the string bow strokes and reed articulations in the individual players' musical parts.

His dual goals are to bring out all the composer's shadings and intentions for the audience but also to reveal to his artists a wealth of interpretive understanding so essential to their professional careers.

And the singers did a lot of research, reading the original 1731 novel by Abbe Prevost and listening to famous old recordings.

We spoke to Macatsoris about his approach to "Manon."

Q: Why did you choose this opera after all those years?

A: Our singers are very close to the ages of the characters, depicting young love and dreams that don't materialize. And we're geared to expressing intimate details in small halls, with the audience so close, instead of at the Met, for instance, where you're hundreds of feet away, with singers in their 40s and up.

There are so many beautiful moments, as when Manon and Des Grieux are living in a tiny apartment, and she sings an aria about the table.

Q: How do you choose the cuts?

A: It's originally five acts with a ballet and big choral scenes, so it's very difficult for us to stay with Massenet's original intentions.

We're not really an opera company, but a growing process presenting works which should be in the singers' repertoire, and they all become involved in some way.

One season, for instance, [Turkish baritone] Burak Bilgili was singing at La Scala, but he came back to sing in our chorus.

Q: What's special to you about Massenet's musical approach?

A: Massenet loves his heroines to be alluring and seductive, as he did with [his operas about] Thais, Herodiade, Cendrillon and La Navarraise, and he always cast singing actresses. The theater was important when he was composing, with Sardou's plays and the great actresses like Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt.

The original novel was seen through the eyes of Des Grieux, but Massenet shifted it so we hear how Manon feels and how she thinks.

Q: What challenges are there for you in conducting?

A: There are quick-shifting tempi, enormous mood swings and scores of delicious, small mercurial moments, all specifically marked in the score. There are many places where the rhythm goes against the words, and the downbeat is not always the strong beat. And I have to make sure not to cover the singers, to keep it clear. French music needs clarity and, for all its sweetness, it shouldn't be done in a sentimental, cloying way.

Q: Why do we care about Manon, who's basically selfish?

A: She's only a teenager, full of awe about travel, inns, jewels, clothes and luxury, and she becomes one of the great courtesans of the ages. My image is to play her like you imagine a young Leslie Caron, in "Lili." She has no guile, she keeps going back to Des Grieux and saying she's sorry, and then she does it again. And he always forgives her because he knows she can't help herself. *

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