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[whitespace] Jonathan Hodel Grieux Eminence: Jonathan Hodel falls for the title heroine of Opera San José's 'Manon.'

Count Knows Best

In Opera San José's production of Massenet's 'Manon,' the parents are right--for once

By Michael J. Vaughn

OPERA DEVOTEES have to be pleased with Opera San José for just attempting Manon. Jules Massenet's work is a delicacy of subtle melodies and lush orchestration, but its scope and great length (it usually makes for a nearly four-hour evening) means that regional companies rarely perform Manon.. Opera San José has done a masterful job of cutting the epic to 2 1/2 hours, without harming its musical or narrative essence.

The story, based on the novel by the Abbé Prévost, is a Traviata-like tale of ill-fated lovers--except in this one, the authority figures are all (for once) in the right. Young Manon is on her way to the convent. "My parents think I love pleasure too much," she says, and they're right.

She's intercepted by Chevalier des Grieux, who falls in love with her and borrows the nobleman Guillot's coach to whisk her away to freedom. The couple's first obstacle is des Grieux's father, who thinks the hedonist girlfriend will be no good for him--and he's right. (Of course, having his son kidnapped is a little over the top, even for a Frenchman.)

Opera San José execution is a mixed bag. Robert Wood and orchestra are divine from the start--specifically, the sweeping strings of Massenet's prelude. Another fine example arrives in the third act in the form of the delicate string figures accompanying des Grieux's "little cottage" aria.

The singers are another matter, especially the principals (the show is double cast). As Manon, Tamara Tsoutsouris delivers dazzling top notes and well-crafted pianissimos (particularly in her farewell to their lovers' apartment, "Adieu, notre petite table"), but she disappears in the lower registers, suffers from recurring pitch drift and lacks a feeling for line.

As des Grieux, tenor Jonathan Hodel is less spectacular but more consistent, displaying an excellent fluidity between chest voice and head voice--but again, little feeling for line.

I know, I know. This "line" thing needs explaining. I could throw out a dozen technical theories, but to the audience member it should be as simple as this: It should appear that the people on stage are speaking their dialogue, but music just happens to come out.

Consider, for example, baritone Scott Bearden as Manon's cousin, Lescaut. Sometimes Bearden's phrasing is so natural, as in his angry Act 2 visit to des Grieux's apartment, that you forget he's singing. Which you really don't want to do, because that rich baritone--take the second-phrase crescendo of "Ne bronchez pas," his instructions to Manon--is the best dessert in town.

Bass Kirk Eichelberger further reinforces the lower-range troops with a brief but fierce turn as the righteous daddy, Count des Grieux. Makes you wonder why the count's commands have so little real impact on his son.

Olivia Stapp's stage direction makes use of some very unsubtle devices: posing des Grieux in the figure of a crucifix during the seminary scene and spotlighting his first vision of Manon as though she were the prize in a game show. She did, however, get some excellent flirt-work from Guillot's mistresses: Jenni Samuelson, Donna Olson and Cameron Russell, who also kicked in with some wonderful a cappella trio sections.

For the history buff, Manon offers two interesting American connections. For one, the final scene was changed to Le Havre from Prevost's original setting in Louisiana. For two, Massenet made some permanent adjustments to the score in 1888 for the sake of his California mistress, Sibyl Sanderson.

Manon runs Feb. 16 and 22 at 8pm and Feb. 24 at 3pm with Tsoutsouris, Hodel and Bearden. The casts switches to Sandra Rubalcava (Manon), Adam Flowers (Chevalier des Grieux) and Joseph Wright (Lescaut) for Feb. 4, 19 and 23 at 8pm and Feb. 17 at 3pm. Performances are at the Montgomery Theater, San Carlos and Market streets, San Jose. Tickets are $40-$56. (408.437.4450 or www.operasj.org)

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From the February 14-20, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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