San Francisco Opera brought back Massenet’s opera “Manon” after a 19-year absence Saturday evening in Vincent Boussard’s new production, which raised questions over its setting, but left no doubt that leading characters Manon Lescaut and Chevalier des Grieux were superbly cast in their role debuts.
Act 1 opened with literally off-the-wall staging: A sloping wall backdrop and pedestrian pathway were interesting at first, but the novelty eventually wore off. If the production’s intent was to leave one guessing, it achieved its purpose with the varied period sets and costumes, from the sartorially elegant crowd toting shopping bags in Act 3 (who looked like they had just arrived from Union Square) or the glitteringly lit casino scene in Act 4 that was more Sands Hotel-like than Paris’ Hotel de Transylvanie.
Fortuitously, soprano Ellie Dehn in the title role proved a riveting focus throughout the production.
As the opera’s conflicted protagonist who is torn between her love for des Grieux and the luxe lifestyle that other men offer, Dehn’s ample, clear voice was up to the composer’s five-act demands on the role.
She could be sublimely powerful, as she was with a touching yet intense delivery of “Adieu, notre petite table” in Act 2 or delightfully impish, as in a balloon-festooned, jaunty Cours-la-Reine scene in Act 3.
Tenor Michael Fabiano made for an endearingly compelling des Grieux, and he demonstrated a passion for Manon that helped one set aside any love-at-first-sight disbelief.
Fabiano’s expansive, warm voice conveyed the sensitivity and expressiveness that Massenet was looking for in the role, most notably in his luminous offering of the Act 2 aria “En fermant les yeux,” and he was a charming, ardent partner in his duets with Dehn.
Indeed, the strong chemistry between the two is showcased in a memorably hot-blooded Act 3 reunion.
Among the supporting roles, bass James Creswell made the strongest impression with his smooth resonance as the Comte des Grieux, whose father-knows-best instinct tries to steer his son away from a relationship with Manon.
Also giving solid accounts were baritone David Pershall as an energetic Lescaut, Manon’s cousin; tenor Robert Brubaker as an enviously leering Guillot de Morfontaine; baritone Timothy Mix as Manon’s sugar daddy wannabe De Brétigny; and soprano Monica Dewey as Pousette as well as mezzo-sopranos Laura Krumm as Javotte and Renée Rapier as Rosette, who offered comic relief as a trio of actresses.
Ian Robertson’s chorus nimbly donned all of the period costumes with sonority and grace, while conductor Patrick Fournillier guided the orchestra through the long score with dexterity and verve.
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7, Nov. 10, Nov. 16 and Nov. 22; 2 p.m. Nov. 19
Tickets: $26 to $370
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com