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Rubalcava Sparkles as Massenet's Manon

San Jose
Montgomery Theatre
02/02/2002 -  2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 0, 14, 16, 17, 19, 22, 23, and 24, February 2002
Jules Massenet: Manon
Tamara Tsoutsouris/Sandra Rubalcava (Manon), Jonathan Hodel/Adam Flowers (chevalier des Grieux), Scott Bearden/Joseph Wright (Lescaut), Kirk Eichelberger/Jesse Merlin (count des Grieux), Joseph Kinyon/Kirk Eichelberger (Bretigny), Bill Welch/Joshua la Force (Guillot de Morfontaine), Jenni Samuelson/Kelly Cunningham (Pousette), Cameron Russell/Patrice Kirkish (Javotte), Donna Olson/Natalie Wilson (Rosette)

Tackling another work from the French repertory, Opera San Jose has come up with a winning vehicle for its Artist in Residence, Sandra Rubalcava in a new production of Massenet's Manon. While the production may have suffered from a lack of finesse and a heavy hand with the editing shears, Rubalcava gave her all and carried the show with a winning portrayal of Massenet's fascinating heroine.
From the opening scene where she was all frivolity and giddy girlishness to her moving death scene at the end, Rubalcava imbued the role with emotional intensity, technical security and musical aplomb. The title role is filled with demands of both the dramatic and vocal varieties. Just learning to pace oneself through the role is a challenge for a young singer and Rubalcava rose admirably to the challenge. Glittering high notes, sensitive lyricism and passionate involvement were all part of her contribution that made for a memorable performance.
As her lover, the chevalier des Grieux, Adam Flowers gave an intense, committed performance. This young tenor has made great strides in both vocal development and stage presence since his first appearance with Opera San Jose. The role of des Grieux has, in the middle of a very lyric role, one heavy dramatic aria that is the downfall of many a tenor who can otherwise handle the role well. In that aria, 'Ah fuyez douce image', Flowers acquitted himself well, negotiating the high notes with unstinting power and building the intensity. If he got through it with more determination than finesse, it was still a commendable accomplishment. Elsewhere in the role, he used his lyric instrument to stronger advantage, and was alone among the principals to consistently shade his singing with a dynamic range from piano to forte.
Joseph Wright played Manon's cousin, Lescaut, with suitable panache and swagger. Wright has a full easy baritone which he pours forth in generous, full tones with even production throughout the range. Wright seems to have no problems with the vocal demands of the role, but in order to grow to the next level as an artist will need to focus on honing his technique to allow for great dynamic range while still solidly supporting the tone and the more elusive aspects of vocal style and phrasing. His natural gifts are major and with work and commitment could well become another of the company's notable exports one day.
But Wright was not alone in over-singing. Most of the other principals seem to think that in order to be heard, it was necessary to sing out full voice for the entire opera and were apparently encouraged to do so. In truth, given the size of the voices, their ability to project, the size of the Montgomery Theatre and the acoustics of the hall, even very soft singing is entirely audible throughout the hall. There were times, such as in the quartet in the second scene (Act II in the original libretto), when the sound was unbearably and unnecessarily loud, assaulting the ear with unrelenting power.
Music director and conductor Robert Wood seemed to have a good sense of balance and the orchestra certainly was not in danger of overpowering the singers. He was a sensitive, responsive leader, attentive to both orchestral detail and the needs of his cast.
The production ofManon was trimmed down to a running time of two and a half hours, cutting the Coeur La Reine scene entirely, as is frequently done by smaller companies. This cut was not great loss, but in the later gambling scene, they cut and pasted (and cut some more) making musical hash of the scene. After the first few bars which served as an entr'acte, the entire opening sequence containing one of the most musically challenging sequences in opera was cut completely, some 180 bars in all. Then, rather than interpolating the Gavotte from the excised Coeur La Reine scene upon Manon's entrance, where is makes musical and dramatic sense, it was used to replace her aria 'Ce bruit de l'or', which was also cut entirely. The title role is a 'long sing' and cutting the aria can thus be justified, particularly for a young singer such as Rubalcava, who gave so much to the role. But for a professional company to skirt the challenge of preparing the opening of the gambling scene entirely brings into question its commitment and respect for the composer and the opera.
Set designer Giulio Cesare Perrone devised an ingenious multi-leveled unit set that adopted itself neatly to the several varied scenes for the opera. His penchant for distressing the surfaces of major set pieces was not always appropriate, making every locale equally seedy looking. On the other hand, Julie Engelbrecht's costumes were opulent and striking, if anything erring on the overly elegant at times. Manon's first costume suggested someone of a high class and cultivation that that of a young country girl being sent to a monastery. But those costumes were the exception and the majority were flattering to the performers and suitable to the character and setting.
Olivia Stapp's direction took full advantage of the space and created a lively, engaging production. She also managed to fill in visually some of the information lost with the cuts. For example, the end of Act I was cut after the elopement of Manon and des Grieux. In the cut portion, a wealthy roué discovers, much to the amusement of onlookers, that the couple has used the carriage he himself had offered to Manon to spirit her away to Paris for his own pleasure. Stapp's staging included this moment, giving additional stronger motivation to Morfontaine's later actions when he has the couple arrested, accusing des Grieux of cheating at cards with Manon as accomplice.
The supporting cast included several strong performances. As the duped and vengeful Morfontaine, Joshua la Force showed continued vocal development while deploying his considerable acting talents to good advantage. Both he and Jesse Merlin as des Grieux's father, the count, wore old-age makeup so over done for the size of the theatre as to be grotesque. Merlin has a fine, full young bass sound, but his movement is stilted and stiff. Likewise his vocal production had a stiffness, lacking a ease and flow to allow for legato singing.
Kirk Eichelberger made of Bretigny, Morfontaine's rival Manon's favors, an arrogant, aggressive playboy, confident of his ability to attract women and more serious than his rival. Their three female companions in both the opening scene and the gambling scene, Kelly Cunningham (Pousette), Patrice Kirkish (Javotte), and Natalie Wilson (Rosette) worked well together as a team and their sound meshed well, singing with precision. The entire cast seemed to be comfortable singing in French and even the several segments of spoken dialogue were handled with fluidity and naturalness, thanks to the work of French language coach, Lea Frey.
There is little reason to produce an opera such as Manon unless the title role can be cast with a soprano able to meet the challenges of the role. Opera San Jose was fortunate in having Rubalcava as one of its resident artists. With other elements in place as the setting, her Manon sparkled like a diamond and made the production well worthwhile.

Kelly Snyder



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