When the Dallas Opera continued its season Friday night with Manon, the five-act opera by French composer Jules Massenet, the Winspear Opera House was far from full. Perhaps because, although this opera is performed regularly, it doesn’t have the widespread name recognition of earlier offerings this season like Tosca, or the allure of a new opera like Great Scott. It's a shame, because this production features some of the most flawless vocal performances of the season in an opera with poetically beautiful arias.
This French opéra-comique, in which there are spoken lines in addition to arias, was accompanied by the Dallas Opera orchestra, masterfully conducted by Music Director Emeritus Graeme Jenkins. Restrained and controlled, Jenkins allowed the spotlight to be on the voices and actors, all the while allowing the orchestra to become vivacious as the action on stage grew boisterous.
Foremost, Ailyn Pérez as the eponymous Manon sang the high notes with ease, then slipped gracefully into the lower register. Pérez, whose hilarious performance earlier this season as the scheming understudy in Great Scott highlighted her lighter side, here showed her versatility as a young woman growing from naïveté to worldliness and then despair. She inhabited each iteration of her character, running the gamut from ingenue to temptress to conniving sphinx, and in spite of her flaws, you can’t help but love her. Pérez's performance of the aria "Adieu, notre petite table" was heart-wrenching.
Tenor Stephen Costello gave a stellar performance as Chevalier des Grieux, a character whose life is destroyed by his love for Manon. Besides a brief moment in which Costello swallowed a word or two, his smooth voice and clear tones depicted perfectly the character's moral decline and his descent into dishonor because he was unable to refuse Manon’s every request. His painful expression when forced to gamble was touching and the aria "En fermant les jeux" will make you fall in love with him. Pérez and Costello’s voices complemented one another beautifully and it seemed as if she grew stronger at the times he was weak while his voice strengthened as Manon neared her demise. Their performances were both moving and realistic without being overdone, which can't be said for other elements of the production.
Over-the-top elements surfaced in Act I when a coach driver kicks his passengers out and begins to whirl a whip above his head threatening them. (Perhaps a reminder that traveling in coach has always been unpleasant.) It was jarring and went on a little too long. Other moments were just as confusing. There was an odd mini-ballet performance in which gladiators flipped their swords up and down imitating falling and rising penises. A shirtless man is beset by three women, one of whom drips hot wax from a candle on his chest. Women ride men horseback while smacking them on their asses with fans — a freaky game of strip poker and a lot of groping earned the opera its self-imposed R-rating.
These odd shifts in mood couldn't detract from impeccable performances and some clever staging. Act I opened with the curtain drawn, before the orchestra began to play, allowing the audience a glimpse into the back room of an inn where performers primped, posed and flirted. This was the first of several imaginative ways set-designer Tanya McCallin used the concrete gray tiered background throughout the production. Chairs, room screens and mirrors were moved on and off stage by actors who sometimes remained hidden behind the pieces, observing the main characters, adding an interesting element of voyeurism.
At the inn we meet the comic villain, Guillot de Morfontaine, acted by tenor William Ferguson. Ferguson skillfully encompassed the comedic leach and the devious gambler, all while wearing a ridiculous sheepskin rug for a wig; it was a relief when he appeared without it later. However, Ferguson was especially charming in Act III when he performed a quick dance alongside a little boy who was adorable as his Mini-Me.
Making an appearance at the inn is also the cousin of Manon, Lescaut, who is sent to be her protector as she makes her way to the convent, a task at which he fails. However, baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer is endearing as the lovable loser and magnificent when he sings his aria "O Rosalinde il me faudrait."
While elements of this production were a bit more risqué than expected, the Dallas Opera's Manon is an inventive and entertaining rendition of an 18th-century masterpiece.
Continues at 2 p.m. Sunday; and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 9, and Saturday, March 12, at the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House. Tickets at dallasopera.org.