Hardly a week goes by that some Academy of Vocal Arts alum isn't marking a spectacular career milestone. Tenor Michael Fabiano is the fifth AVA singer in six years to win the prestigious Richard Tucker Award. Bass Patrick Guetti was a Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions winner this year. Tenor Bryan Hymel just signed with the Warner Classics recording label; Ailyn Perez and Stephen Costello have their first joint disc on that label next month (I have an advance copy, and it's a knockout).
The current cast of Massenet's Manon isn't at the Metropolitan Opera yet, even though Met talent scout Jonathan Friend was spotted at Saturday's opening night. That's one explanation key singers behaved as though they had a 3,800-seat hall to fill. This is an intermittent problem at AVA's tiny Helen Corning Warden Theater and seemed particularly acute Saturday because cast members revealed much more ingratiating vocal colors when they scaled back.
Directed by Tito Capobianco and conducted by Christofer Macatsoris, the opera received much Mediterranean heat - which would have been more than welcome in the Puccini Manon Lescaut. Although Massenet's version can accommodate that approach, it's rarely all it can be when broad strokes take the place of pinpoint details.
True to form, Capobianco was a paragon of cleverness in his use of the limited stage space, using the 18th-century Fragonard painting The Swing - with its billowing petticoats and not-so-latent eroticism - as the visual emblem for this story of an innocent convent girl seduced by the bright, shiny accessories of living large. And though that life could only be sketched on the AVA stage, it was well-sketched, indeed. Much of the budget went for costumes. Even the set changes were entertaining.
As Manon, Sydney Mancasola was strangely unsympathetic. If Manon is as chilly, conniving, and materialistic as she came off on Saturday, why sit through five acts of her descent? The most engaging Manons are willfully bedazzled by the opulent world offered to them. Vocally, Mancasola's leaps often came with a blast of sound that can impress some listeners but that seems dramatically irrelevant to this one. Coloratura passages were more about dramatic impact than accuracy, and her singing felt comfortable (and sounded inviting) only in less stentorian moments.
Tenor Diego Silva has a way to go before his voice acquires a glamorous tenor tone. But the vocally muted rapture he projected in des Grieux's Act II "Le Reve" was a minor miracle of Gallic seamlessness (it's already on YouTube). He never touched that standard again on Saturday; perhaps he was too busy being an opera singer.
Michael Adams was a reasonably imposing Lescaut, but the best French diction of the evening was heard from character tenor Jeffrey Halili (a 2006 graduate - and a highly distinctive talent) as Guillot Morfontaine.