Beloved by many but seldom seen in Philadelphia in recent decades, Massenet's
is in residence at Academy of Vocal Arts but paying a strangely heavy price. What happened to the overture? The opera dove into the first scene without it. Lots of other passages fell away. You might call it the Peter Brook version, in honor of the Europe-based director who excavates chamber operas from grand ones like this.
Always, AVA is a special case, an operatic forum where young singers take on their first major roles, the purpose being not to deliver a complete characterization first time out, but to learn the text thoroughly from master conductor Christofer Macatsoris, and to profit from their mistakes. Production - such as it can be in the tiny, rudimentary Helen Corning Warden Theatre - is secondary, even with a resourceful Dorothy Danner staging and the decent wig and costume budget, which is essential for a pre-French Revolution story of the beautiful Manon who trades the love of her life (plus her morals) for material wealth.
Tuesday's performance had plenty of talent onstage, but that, too, required allowances: The entire cast revealed attractive vocal colors when not singing full out in the hall's dry acoustics. But youthful spirits took over most of the time; even some peripheral characters were far too fierce to project French charm. You basically needed a death scene to cool these voices down, and even then, Macatsoris' approach was more Italianate than French (which was convincing, thanks to the force of his personality).
You can't say Manon bloomed but it did more than survive, which is significant in a heavily perfumed, often fragile genre. Cuts brought the best moments closer together, but the opera also became hectic - and drained of its sociology, in which Manon can be a good girl dazzled by sensual delight in the wrong places.
Instead, this production was a less-interesting morality tale, and Joyce El-Khoury went with that, making the title character an innately flawed woman who turns hardened and greedy. That suited her vocal approach, which wasn't light or French but a substantial lyric soprano that copes with coloratura. But do you really want to sit through an opera whose title character is monstrous?
In contrast to all that, the mid-weight leading tenor Michael Fabiano, whose voice projects both luster and ease, made Act III hugely satisfying. Macatsoris extracted great dramatic effects from the orchestra, and Fabiano inhabited his character with such total effect that even vocal misfires seemed like an intentional part of the package.
Is that enough to justify a performance that was somewhat hobbled elsewhere? It depends how hungry you are for Manon.