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November 19, 2010

Peabody Opera Theatre offers persuasive production of Massenet's 'Manon'

Manon Lescaut was the original Material Girl, incapable of resisting glittery possessions or lovers. But, of course, she had a heart of gold, which is why she inspired at least three operas.

The ones we know today are by Massenet and Puccini, two totally different takes on the same basic story (by Abbe Prevost). Which do I prefer? Like Manon, I guess I just love the one I'm with, and that happened to be Massenet's Thursday night.

The score is delicious, sometimes frothy and sometimes exquisitely poetic. The characters are deftly drawn. Manon and boyfriend No. 1, Des Grieux, fall in love awfully fast even by romantic opera standards, but they do so with such charm that you can't help but believe in them.

Their love affair falls apart pretty fast, too, but, again, thanks to Massenet's deft touch, everything makes sense in its own sweet way. And the finale, with Manon and Des Grieux back together in time for her to die, is filled with exquisite nuances.

Puccini put more passion and soul into his version, but Massenet's still holds up sturdily.

The new production by Peabody Opera Theatre, nimbly directed by Roger Brunyate, might better be described as

fully costumed, rather than fully staged -- judging by the minimal set, I imagine budgets are tighter than usual these days. But, more importantly, it's fully sung.

Thursday's cast, which will perform again Saturday (another slate takes over Friday and Sunday), featured two promising artists I've enjoyed hearing before.

Soprano Jennifer Edwards met the challenging title role head on, using her bright, agile soprano vibrantly and sensitively. More warmth would have been welcome, but this still was singing of admirable quality. She was particularly impressive in the Gavotte, putting a nice gleam on her tone and a colorful spin on her phrases.  Edwards demonstrated effective acting skills as well, revealing the girlish, impulsive side of the character engagingly and putting across the transition to womanhood. 

The first time I encountered tenor William Davenport, I thought he had a lot of the right career-making stuff. I thought so again about his performance as Des Grieux. The voice seems to have become rounder and more flexible, with a nice top and a certain touch of honey in the tone. If he keeps developing these gifts, he ought to make a name for himself. The world is perpetually starved for stylish tenors, after all, and style is one thing Davenport definitely has going for him.

He took the Dream Aria a little fast for my tastes, but sculpted it elegantly, and he gave "Ah! fuyez" considerable expressive bite. The singer acted more animatedly than the last time I saw him, so count that as a plus, too.

Kangho Lee's low register needed more heft, but he was a dynamic presence as Manon's cousin Lescaut. Peter Tomaszewski revealed a sizable, attractive bass-baritone in his brief appearance as the Count des Grieux. Michael Maliakel did smooth singing as de Bretigny.  Danielle Edwards, Annie Laing and Kristina Lewis set off sparks as the trio of well-kept actresses who animate the opera periodically. The rest of the soloists and the chorus came through quite well.

Ken Lam conducted with a telling sweep, but allowed the gentlest side of the music to shimmer. Except for a loss of steadiness in the strings during soft, exposed passages, the orchestra turned in a rich, cohesive performance.

I'd rank this among the best Peabody Opera ventures, overall, of the past decade. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:32 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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