As surprising as it may be, this is the first production of Jules Massenet’s Manon for the Israeli Opera. There were many bright spots in this production, although it did not reach some of the summits of last season. One reason has nothing to do with the Israeli Opera – Manon is far too long and brings back an old argument: whether it is right to “edit” a classic piece in order to make it more accessible for modern audiences.
The opera begins when Manon, a beautiful young woman, arrives at an inn in Amiens to meet her cousin Lescaut, who will take her to a convent according to the wishes of her father. But Manon falls in love at first sight with the Chevalier des Grieux, a young man passing through, and they both escape to Paris. The young couple live their love story in a very modest home in Paris. Des Grieux writes a letter to his father asking for his consent to marry Manon. But Manon’s cousin and his friend Brétigny arrive and say that the father is going to have des Grieux arrested; Manon believes this “fake news” and succumbs to the proposal of Brétigny, who offers her a life of luxury in Paris. Manon lives with Brétigny and becomes a well-known figure in the Parisian nightlife. But soon she hears that des Grieux is so desperate that he wants to become a priest, so she goes to the abbey to seek him out. The two return to Paris with no money, so Manon forces des Grieux to gamble. He finally wins, but is accused of cheating, and he and Manon are arrested. Des Grieux’s father arrives, hoping this arrest will turn his son. He promises to release him, but says he will have no mercy on Manon. Attempting to free his love, des Grieux promises Manon that he will be able to rescue her, but she has become seriously ill and cannot escape with him. Ashamed and full of remorse, she makes an apology for having made him unhappy and repents of her light-heartedness. As Manon dies, des Grieux falls desperately on the lifeless body of his beloved.
The two leading roles, Ekaterina Bakanova as Manon and Leonardo Caimi as Chevalier des Grieux, were both brilliant and carried the weight of the production on their shoulders. A classic match of a soprano and a tenor blessed with wonderful voices and outstanding dramatic presence. Their excellent collaboration is obvious right from Act I when they sing together Nous vivrons à Paris. Bakanova has especially impressed me in two famous arias of Manon: Adieu, notre petite table in Act II and Et c’est là l’histoire de Manon Lescaut when she dies in Act V. Also excellent were bass Uri Kissin as the Innkeeper and the Israeli Opera’s own talents: Vladimir Brown in the role of Comte des Grieux and the trio of Yel Levita, Shay Bloch and Tal Bergman, who kept the other major facet of this ultimately tragic opera, the comic one, alive.
Together with the two leading role the success of the evening also belongs to conductor Dan Ettinger, the new Music Director of the Israeli Opera. I have been following this outstanding talent since his high school days as a rising baritone, and his conducting career has been fulfilling all the high expectations of all experts. The orchestra under his baton was precise, clear and idiomatic in its playing. The Israeli Opera Chorus lead by Ethan Schmeisser also did very well, including some solo part among their lines.
The set and costume design were OK, not more than that. The Israeli Opera has indulged us with creative, sometimes surprising visuals, but this was not the case here. It was serving its purpose, no more and no less.
- By Jules Massenet
- Original Director: Vincent Boussard
- Conductor: Dan Ettinger
- Revival Director: Gediminas Seduikis
- The Israeli Opera Chorus, Ethan Schmeisser, Conductor
- Cast includes: Ekaterina Bakanova, Leonardo Caimi, Uri Kissin, Vladimir Brown
- The Israeli Opera, Tel-Aviv
- Running through November 18, 2019
- Running time four hours including 2 intermissions