Reviewed by Judy Richter
It's always a happy occasion when American soprano Ruth Ann Swenson returns to the San Francisco Opera. She has been an audience favorite there ever since beginning her ascent to stardom in the SFO's Merola Opera training program in the early '80s. Returning again this season for the title role in Jules Massenet's Manon, she rewards her audiences once again with her refined singing, intelligence and musicality. Her high notes are not only accurate but also beautiful with artful dynamic shadings. Her acting skills are strong, and she seems to enjoy what she's doing -- a joy that carries across the footlights to the audience.
Swenson's Manon is well-paired with American tenor Jerry Hadley's Chevalier des Grieux. Hadley, who is generally good but not great, is in his best voice in several years, at least as heard in San Francisco. He convincingly portrays his character's ardor as well as his moral dilemma in his love for Manon, who loves the glamorous life. He and Swenson also have good stage chemistry.
The supporting cast also is strong. French tenor Michel Sénéchal, who excels at character roles despite limited vocal resources, once again shines as Guillot de Morfontaine, the shameless, ridiculously bewigged roué who orchestrates Manon's downfall after failing to win her affections. American baritone Rodney Gilfry, who did surprisingly little singing as Stanley Kowalski in the SFO's recent world premiere of André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, has more opportunity here as Lescaut, Manon's cousin. He cuts an imposing figure as the soldier whose favorite pastime is gambling but who maintains his family loyalty to Manon. American baritone Louis Otey does well as De Brétigny, another of Manon's admirers; French baritone Alain Vernhes brings an air of dignity and paternal love to the role of Comte des Grieux; and Mexican baritone Armando Gama, an Adler Fellow, makes the most of his small role as an innkeeper. De Morfontaine's three actress friends are portrayed by the delightful trio of sopranos Peggy Kriha Dye and Tammy Jenkins and mezzo-soprano Pamela Dillard, all Americans.
Julius Rudel leads the SFO orchestra with sensitivity. The orchestral prelude to Act 3, Scene 2, set at the seminary of St. Sulpice, was especially lovely with its use of organ and cello and its short fugue. Ian Robertson's SFO Chorus also was good. John Copley directs the production well, with design credits going to David Mitchell for the sets, David Walker for the lovely costumes and Joan Arhelger for the lighting. Lawrence Pech's choreography for the ballet scene fails to inspire. On the whole, though, this is a most enjoyable production, thanks in very large part to Swenson and her colleagues.
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