The classic opera and romance Manon has everything you would want from any drama—scandal, intrigue and betrayal, greed, a consumptive death. It revolves around naive and impressionable lovers and, because it is set in the 18th century with staging and design reminiscent of the Belle Époque, France’s gilded age, Manon is not only an illicit love affair, but a lavish one as well.
“It has all of those elements we associate with big, grand opera. It has lots of chorus. There’s tunes for days,” says Stage Director Buck Ross. “The climax of the opera has our leading lady seducing a priest in church.” You don’t get much more operatic than that.
In his preparations for both last year’s The Tales of Hoffman and this year’s Manon, Ross focused on bringing out the opera’s latent contemporary resonance. In Manon‘s case, Ross discovered a cinematic connection. “It resembles, in many ways, a big old Hollywood epic love story.” To enhance this element of the story, Ross projects credits onto the stage during the overture, much like a Hollywood movie. “We’ll be doing it in a way that the composer [and] any 18th century person would find rather surprising.”
Ross calls the ambitious and impressionable Manon, who serves as the opera’s nexus, the single most interesting character in opera. “Whoever gets to play that role gets to play so many different emotional states in the course of the evening.” And her romantic partner, des Grieux, is just as unconventional. Ross points out that he is not the perfect Disney prince audiences are used to. “He makes some really bad decisions [and] just keeps getting into trouble.”
Along with its rich characters, Manon is an opéra comique, so it requires great acting in addition to great singing from the performers, especially the soprano and tenor portraying Manon and des Grieux. Buck knows that the students, most of whom are pursuing advanced degrees, are ready. In fact, he credits the high quality of the Moores Opera Center productions to the student performer's experience and skill levels. And Ross, who has staged for many opera houses, including the Houston Grand Opera, brings forty years of experience to the production.
The opera’s status as a classic is both its greatest weakness and its greatest strength. The Jules Massenet composition premiered in 1884 Paris, France. Because of its age, many stage directors would be tempted to produce the most untraditional interpretation of the piece possible. In my conversation with Ross, I bring up the perennial re-imagining device steampunk as an example. Ross agrees. “Ironically, these days, setting something in the period that it’s actually set in is almost a radical approach.”
Manon. Oct. 23—26. $12-20. The University of Houston, 120 School of Music Building. 713-743-3313. uh.edu