Yesterday afternoon I made one of my “repeat” visits to the War Memorial Opera House, using my San Francisco Opera subscription tickets to provide me with an alternative point of view. The opera was Jules Massenet’s Manon, and readers may recall that I was particularly impressed with conductor Patrick Fournillier’s meticulous command of all the rich details for both instrumentalists and vocalists that Massenet had worked into his score. Regular readers know that I have maintained my subscription seating because of the excellent view it provides of the orchestra pit, and it is often the case that watching the instrumentalists reveals details of structure that are not necessarily immediately apparent to the ear.
On this particular occasion, however, it turned out that an alternative view of the stage was also highly informative. I have already observed that the staging by Vincent Boussard had intentionally abstracted his setting away from any specific time and place, and those intentions were reinforced by the minimal approach to set design taken by Vincent Lemaire. Yesterday afternoon I realized that the lighting design by Gary Marder also played a major role in realizing Boussard’s conceptions. Given a somewhat wider field of view, I could appreciate how much of the visual element consisted of a play of shadows, which was reinforced by the use of large mirrored surfaces in the set design. Even the floor was highly reflective, meaning that there were also times when the ceiling area around the chandelier glowed with Marder’s colors; and one could even see the play of shadows on that ceiling surface.
Shadows and reflections of Robert Brubaker, Rachel Little, Renée Rapier, Monica Dewey, and Laura Krumm (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)
All this convinced me that Boussard had chosen to dispense with not only the sense of time and place in Antoine François Prévost’s Manon Lescaut novel but also the realism evoked by the author’s narrative technique. Instead, he chose to play up qualities of deliberate artifice, suggesting that all of those shadows and reflections may be little more than artifacts, rather like all those mechanical body parts that Spalanzani uses to build his automata in the “Olympia” act of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann. One might also think of how Indonesians present episodes from their own mythology through shadow theatre.
There is much to be said in favor to this detached approach. After all, while Prévost wrote his novel as the first-person narrative delivered by the Chevalier des Grieux (the “man of quality” in Prévost’s series of seven novels, the last of which is Manon Lescaut), the libretto by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille clearly dispenses with that point of view. Indeed, des Grieux (tenor Michael Fabiano) does not show up on stage until about two-thirds of the first act have elapsed. (For that matter, Ellie Dehn’s Manon makes her first appearance about fifteen minutes prior to des Grieux.)
Taken as a whole, the opera is not so much about either of its two “leading characters” as it is about the panoramic social structure in which the two of them are almost bit players. One might say that Boussard turned to artifice to direct our attention to the structural context, rather than the man and woman acting out their parts in that context. As a result, we are more drawn into the “power games” played by Manon’s gambling cousin (baritone David Pershall), Guillot de Morfontaine (tenor Robert Brubaker), De Brétigny (baritone Timothy Mix), and their three “actress” companions, Pousette (soprano Monica Dewey), Javotte (mezzo Laura Krumm), and Rosette (mezzo Renée Rapier). Massenet may have given des Grieux and Manon the “power” aria and duo work; but it is those “secondary” characters (not to mention a chorus that comments on everything, sometimes even more thoroughly than a Greek chorus) that keep things moving.
Prévost may have seen himself as a pioneering realist, but it is through his deft command of deploying artifice that Boussard has breathed life into a text originally intended as a moral tale and written with no great depth.