How's this for a wild ride? Manon Lescaut goes from convent-bound country girl to bejeweled toast of Paris to exiled "fallen woman," in five acts. Jules Massenet's tuneful, charm-laden Manon concerns the amorous adventures of Abb√É¬© Pr√É¬©vost's heroine and eighteenth-century French literature's greatest Material Girl.
In the Academy of Vocal Arts' current production, smartly directed by Dorothy Danner with an eye toward maximizing the tiny Warden Theater stage, those five acts are considerably trimmed, leaving some atmospheric material but focusing on the basic and touching love story. None of what's missing is a musical loss, but it does ratchet up the pressure on the two leading singers, who already must carry much of the show on their shoulders (and vocal cords). Pr√É¬©vost's novel tells the story from the recollective point of view of Manon's aristocratic lover Des Grieux, who falls for her at first sight and throws away career, riches and position on her behalf. (She's faithful while the money flows, but even when she strays she loves him best.)
Atypically, opening night seemed a kind of public dress rehearsal, with some uneven orchestral playing and some singers very much still visually dependent on Maestro Christopher Macatsoris for cues. (Manon is a very difficult show; doubtless the ensemble will improve through May 12.)
AVA fielded a strong, attractive leading duo. The main problem with French soprano Manon (!) Strauss Evrard's performance in the lead was that her native pronunciation put everyone else's in the shade (granted singing and speaking French onstage is tough, but it sounds like AVA should increase the Gallic coaching). She was also saddled with an unfortunate wig for two acts; she looked lovely as the impoverished, dying Manon, with naturally flowing hair. Hers is a very French instrument, sometimes angular and even hard at loud dynamics, but adept at softening into beautiful, expressive demi-tints. High D holds no terrors for her. Local tenor Stephen Costello leaves AVA a finer-grained singer and more committed actor than before. Great promise here, with some ground still to cover on head resonance and facial mobility. He maintained more consistent line than his stage partner, and "Ah, fuyez" proved a highlight. Sonorous baritone Octavio Moreno made a very positive contribution as Br√É¬©tigny; as the three "actresses" who more or less act as Manon's back-up singers, Zulimar L√É¬≥pez-Hern√É¬°ndez, Elspeth Kincaid and Nina Yoshida Nelsen had a blast.
Manon, April 27, Academy of Vocal Arts, Helen Corning Warden Theater