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Bad Girl Sings in San José's Manon

Opera San José

Sept. 12-27

Opera San José, which closed out its 2008-2009 season with Bizet's Carmen, opens the 2009 fall season with another operatic bad girl: Manon. Jules Massenet’s 1884 opera opens Sept. 12 at the California Theatre.

The sociopolitical milieu of Manon’s 18th-century France lies, of course, a considerable distance from Carmen’s Seville. Still, the two title characters have much in common. Carmen, based on Prosper Merimee’s novella of the same name, and Manon, inspired by Abbé Prevost’s 1731 novel L’Histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, are among opera’s most complex and charismatic doomed heroines.

Manon, however, takes a decidedly longer fall. She starts Massenet’s 1884 opera as a shy 15-year-old on her way to the convent; a chance meeting with the young chevalier Des Grieux directs her to an entirely different path. Manon is pure at heart, but deeply flawed — fickle and shallow, with a penchant for making unfortunate choices — and her devotion to Des Grieux, pitted against her taste for the glittering Parisian high life, leads her to a tragic end.

If Manon is unable to escape her inevitable outcome, she makes her descent on a torrent of glorious music. Massenet wasn’t the only composer to respond to Prevost’s original story (Puccini’s Manon Lescaut derived from it, as well, with less satisfying results), but in Manon, with a fine libretto by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille, he brought the character to life in vibrant musical terms. With arias such as the Act 2 “Adieu, notre petit table” (Farewell, our little table) illuminating Manon’s inner thoughts with exquisite tenderness, Manon is Massenet’s most enduring opera; along with Carmen and Gounod’s Faust, it remains one of the most beloved works in the French repertoire.

No wonder so many sopranos have been drawn to the role, which has seen great interpreters, including Beverly Sills (who described it as “the French Isolde”), Reri Grist, and Victoria de los Angeles. In recent years, top names such as Renée Fleming, Angela Gheorghiu, and Natalie Dessay have made their marks, as well.

Opera San José’s production, which launches the company’s 26th season under General Director Irene Dalis, features two alternating casts. Sopranos Khori Dastoor and Rebecca Schuessler will alternate in the title role; the role of Des Grieux will be sung by tenors Alexander Boyer and Michael Dailey. Krassen Karagiozov and Daniel Cilli alternate as Lescaut, and Silas Elash and Isaiah Musik-Ayala sing the Count Des Grieux. Joseph Marcheso and Bryan Nies will share conducting duties; Dianna Shuster is the stage director.

Georgia Rowe has been a Bay Area arts writer since 1986. She is Opera News’ chief San Francisco correspondent, and a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Musical America, San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, and San Francisco Examiner. Her work has also appeared in Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, and Songlines.