Review: Manon is rich, striking and intense

An “opera-comique” that ends in deportation and death — only in opera.

Manon is a 19th-century French opera by Jules Massenet, performed by the UBC Opera Ensemble and Vancouver Opera Orchestra, conducted by Rosemary Thomson and directed by Nancy Hermiston. It tells the tale of Manon, a young girl on her way to live at the convent under her parents orders. She and des Grieux, a young nobleman, fall in love and move to an apartment in Paris when, soon after, he is abducted and Manon begins to enjoy the new pleasures of her youthfulness. She finds that des Grieux is taking holy orders and dispels his reservations by begging forgiveness when they finally express their love once more. More separation and reunions ensue until Manon dies in her lover’s arms, begging forgiveness for the shame she has brought him. 

The two leads, played by Kallie Clayton and Philippe Castagner, portrayed the innocence of the young lovers effortlessly and faultlessly. Clayton was endearing as the title role as well as a capable actress and a talented soprano. Castagner was — as can only expect from a singer returning from the Met in New York — a stunning performer, playing the role of des Grieux in an earnest, loveable style. 

Opera has the ability, over straight theatre or musicals, to be over-dramatic without compromising the legitimacy of the performance or storyline. Of course falling in love in the space of one song is ridiculous, but the sold-out audience of opening night was swept along with the comedy, romance and excitement.

Perhaps more could have been done with the romance scenes — lines in the music could suggest the young lovers to be more passionate together than they were, but perhaps the charming awkwardness between the two was intended to juxtapose the more risqué subject matter.

Although the Old Auditorium was full, there is no doubt the proportion of students in the audience could certainly have been higher. Performed in French with English subtitles, the storyline, jokes and emotions were easy to understand and the audience was vocal about their appreciation of many of the scenes. The opera begins with a comic scene involving food, innuendo and physical comedy — thanks to the talents of Yuhui Wang, Camille Holland, Gwendolyn Yearwood and Charlotte Belinger, whose small ensemble singing was one of the highlights of the performance.

It was an absolute pleasure to watch an opera of this calibre with such talented performers. UBC Opera’s performance was brilliant — each actor with their own story and an incredible ensemble presentation. Conductor Thomson knows every word and note of the production and the Vancouver Opera Orchestra provided tight energy from the pit. The atmosphere in the auditorium was exactly what you’d hope for in a comedy-opera.

An extremely talented cast under direction of Nancy Hermiston, Manon is truly a testament to the accomplished UBC Opera program.