Saturday, September 19, 2009

Manon, Opera San Jose, 9/12/09

It's a true delight when Opera San Jose ventures beyond the standard regional-company fare, especially when it pays off as well as it does with its recent opening of Massenet's "Manon. The reason lies squarely with its lead couple, soprano Khori Dastoor and tenor Alexander Boyer. Both singers display a deep knowledge and skill with both their characters and Massenet's music.

I could go on and on about Dastoor, who has developed into a masterful bel canto singer. The singer brings lyricism and sensitivity to Manon's opening aria, "Je suis encore tout etourdie," reaches an emotional peak with with the second-act "Adieu, notre petite table" (notably a thrilling double-forte cresendo suddenly cut off to the nearly whispered confession, "I am nothing but weakness and fragility"), then ventures into the prytechnical with the coloratura cadenzas of Manon's "brag-piece," "Je marche sur tous les chemins." Throughout, Dastoor brings out the light and dark sides that make Manon one of opera's most complex and compelling characters. It was a thrill to follow the artistry with which Dastoor shaped her lines, especially a couple of gorgeous 2nd-act diminuendos, and to enjoy the space afforded to her by Joseph Marcheso and his orchestra.

Boyer continues to make a mark with his powerful, lyric voice (and after Don Jose, finds himself in yet another sucker-for-the-ladies role). Tenors with Boyer's kind of tone can get away with murder (sorry, sopranos), but Boyer chooses not to, continually refining his approach. A good example is the third-act prayer, "Ah! fuyez, douce image" and the following duet with the repentant Manon, "N'est-ce plus ma main," in which he employs a lighter tone to bring out Des Grieux's emotional vulnerability.

The supporting roles are another strength: tenor Bill Welch, who makes the most of the comically hateful nobleman Guillot de Morfontaine; baritone Adam Meza, who enjoys himself a little too much as the caddish soldier De Bretigny; and bass Silas Elash, who lends the proper degree of gravitas to Des Grieux's father (who has that irritating quality of being insufferably right all the time). The only complaint is for baritone Krassen Karagiozov as Manon's cousin, Lescaut; he's fine vocally, but distractingly stiff in his movements.

I save a separate paragraph for "the actresses" - Pousette, Rosette and Javotte, played by soprano Jillian Boye and mezzos Cathleen Candia and Bettany Coffland. Massenet laces his party scenes with these three in the same way that Mozart decorates "The Magic Flute" with his Three Ladies, like a host serving up regular portions of creme brulee. Those three-part female harmonies are just sonically delicious.

The biggest surprise in the program was seeing the name of OSJ's General Manager, Larry Hancock, as set designer. No typo there. Already serving as supertitles translator, apparently Hancock's going to address these recessionary budgets by doing everything himself. The results for "Manon" were pretty impressive, a series of scenes designed not so much to be showy as to best augment the action. (Given Hancock's encyclopedic knowledge of opera, this is no surprise.) A couple of standout touches were the royal red bed canopy in Act 2 that rose all the way into the flies, and the creepy hand-like tree in the final scene on the road to Le Havre.

OSJ's new principal conductor, Joseph Marcheso, in addition to "playing nice" with his singers, is a hell of a lot of fun to watch; he's quite theatrical in his movements. He and the orchestra brought out all the subtleties in Massenet's work that are, perhaps the culprit in making him one of history's most underrated composers.

Through Sept. 27, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. Alternate casts. $51-$91, 408/437-4450, the serial version of Michael's novel "Outro" at
Image: Alexander Boyer and Khori Dastoor. Photo by Chris Ayers.

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