Sunday, May 9, 2010

REVIEW: Massenet’s Manon by the Opera Hong Kong

The cast was good but the audience was bad.

On the second and last performance (8th of May) of Massenet's Manon at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, the house was packed but the audience behaved horribly. It must be the worst in my entire opera-going life here and abroad (well, that is excluding mainland China)!

During act I, there was somebody shouting sporadically for almost a whole minute! The rest of the evening, there was a lot of "shushing", which ironically is louder than the reasons for the "shushing". Considering that it was a Saturday night, I do not understand why almost a fourth of the audience was late. During the interval, I tried to assess the audience demographics and here's my hypothesis: There must be a significant number of tickets that were given away to pack the Grand Theatre like that (considering that the HKPO was also packed in the Concert Hall). Unfortunately, this audience must have thought that they were attending a Canto-pop concert which is usually half an hour late. There were a lot of kids (+/- 9 years old), in fact, I spotted a whole row of kids in the stall HK$680 section. All the murmurings (reason for shushing) must have been due to the fact that the opera, on its own, was already confusing enough and that the translations didn't help by looking like as if they had been churned out by Google Translate and was not subjected to spell check. There you go, that's my hypothesis and I am sticking to it!

Now that I have got that out of my chest, let us talk about the opera.

Manon was co-presented by Opera Hong Kong and Le French May; and this production was a result of cooperation of Opéra de Nice, Opéra Théâtre d’Avignon et des Pays de Vaucluse, Opéra de Massy and Grand Théâtre de Reims. Manon is an opera comique by the French composer Jules Massenet. The libretto is by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille, based on the 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost.

Manon tells about a young girl embarking on a journey that will eventually tear her apart between her passionate love for a young student and her increasing need for material riches and comfort as a mistress of a rich man. It is the quintessential example of the music and culture of the Parisian Belle Époque times.

The role of Manon was described by Beverly Sill's as the "French Isolde". She must be referring to the fact that Manon is in every act of the opera and it must be physically and emotionally draining to do the role effectively. In last night's case, we had Nathalie Manfrino as Manon. Aside from a crack in one of the high notes, Nathalie's Manon was a joy to listen to. She possessed a warm and round voice that she skillfully manipulated to bring subtlety and nuance to her singing. The shift from the innocent to the spoiled and the knowing was convincing.

Le Chevalier Des Grieux, Manon's "main" love interest, found a good fit with Florian Laconi. Florian possessed a bright and ringing lyric tenor voice that craved for empathy. His singing and acting were heartfelt, while in moments when fragility and weakness were needed, he filled the role with dark poignancy.

Marcel Vanaud as Le Comte Des Grieux, made a mark with his deep and dark baritone voice coupled with an apt portrayal of a righteous and dignified father. Christophe Mortagne (who acted peculiarly during the curtain call by presenting the orchestra and the chorus rather than just taking his bow) was fittingly peculiar in his rendition of Guillot Morfontaine. Hong Kong’s very own, Joyce Wong, Melody Sze and Carol Lin performed a cohesive trio of Pousette, Javotte and Rosette.

The use of text projected onto the translucent screen on stage was a nice touch. While the set demonstrated versatility, the St. Sulpice design was totally odd. From where I was sitting, I can’t see what was happening behind the small archway; which could have been easily solved by projecting the shadows onto the backdrop through some simple lighting adjustments. However, by not showing a dispersing congregation enthusiastic over the sermon of the new abbe (Le Chevalier) in the St. Sulpice scene, the production watered down the power of Manon’s “love” and the fall of the new abbe.

Overall, this is a most welcome performance of a rarely performed opera in Hong Kong. Bravo!

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At May 10, 2010 at 12:41 PM , Anonymous Juan Antonio Lanuza said...

To avoid problems, students that will be brought to watch an opera should be lectured a few days before about the plot, composer, and the melodies they should notice. This was done in London around 1980 when the Jonathan Miller mafia take on Rigoletto was due for its premiere. The students commented that they enjoyed the opera because they were able to follow it. This happens many times in Manila because students are just bused to the theater without any previous preparation. It is really annoying!!!

At May 10, 2010 at 1:08 PM , Blogger SATOSHI said...

It is very difficult to blame the kids for being noisy. Honestly, it can be quite traumatic or boring to see an opera if one doesn't really know what's going on. Beside, I am not so sure whether Manon is the right opera to bring kids to... (Come to think of it, what is a good opera for kids? Please don't say The Magic Flute... haha) It didn't escape me that perhaps an updated version of Manon set in Hong Kong may not be a bad idea... I can just see the transformation of Manon carrying a "red, white & blue" bag (the plastic sack-like type of bag that people use for carrying loads of stuff) to carrying a Louis Vuitton bag with a HK tycoon trailing behind her...Back to the kids, either prepare them or not bring them!


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