Manon – A “Dinner with Donald” Event

Manon is not my favorite opera. A statement that is praising with faint damns, since I like almost all opera.

My complaint is only with the plot. It is dramatically unsound. Reduced to minimalist terms, the 5 acts could be titled:

  1. Boy and girl meet, fall in love, go off together.
  2. Girl’s love for money greater than for boy; affair ends suddenly.
  3. Boy and girl meet, fall in love, go off together – again.
  4. Girl’s love for money greater than for boy; affair ends suddenly.
  5. Girl dies.

Despite this yo-yo plot with an almost non-sequitur final act, Manon is a fascinating opera, and Donald Pippin’s Pocket Opera gives it an intriguing presentation.

Erina Newkirk stars in the title role of Massenet's Manon

There is no question but that Erina Newkirk was the star of the show. Not only is Manon the title character, but she is on stage most of the opera and has the best musical opportunities – and Ms Newkirk was fully up to the part, both musically and dramatically. Many other critics have praised her voice in words better than I can summon. I’ve no idea how old she is in real life, but on stage in Act I Manon was a vulnerable 15-year old girl, overflowing with joy during a brief moment between a repressed childhood at home and a confined adult in a convent. I doubt if there was a parent in the audience who didn’t yearn to protect her from the real-life sorrows that they knew awaited her.

In Act II she did a perfect job of portraying her emotions as she prepares to face des Grieux and try to dissuade him from becoming a priest. First, the indecision in her face, then a convulsive swallow, a straightening of the shoulders, and a decisive turn and step towards him.

Adam Flowers who sings the lead tenor part of des Grieux; headshot

I have enjoyed hearing Adam Flowers (Chevalier des Grieux) many times in recent years, particularly from 2001-06 when he was a resident artist at Opera San Jose. He has a fine tenor voice and it blended perfectly with Newkirk’s during their lovely duets. He didn’t show any great acting ability, but perhaps this represented his skill, since des Grieux is a rather one-dimensional character, all of his actions appear to be motivated only by his blind infatuation with Manon.

Manon (Erina Newkirk) tries to hide her amusement at the attentions of Guillot (Michael Mendelsohn)

It is always a plus to see the name of Michael Mendelsohn on a cast list, and he didn’t disappoint as the wealthy nobleman Guillot. Off-stage, Michael is an extremely nice guy whom it would be a pleasure to know better, but on-stage it’s hard to imagine a more realistic and ridiculous “dirty old man”.

The chorus and other minor cast members all did good jobs and worked well together – a tribute to Donald Pippin’s skill at picking good singer-actors, and Andrew Morgan’s sound directing.

Now about this plot. It is loosely based on L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, a short novel by French author Antoine Frané§ois PrÉvost (the AbbÉ PrÉvost) published in 1731, but it tries to be all things for all people.

My problem is that I like to become emotionally involved. That’s easy in Act I. She is a beautiful young girl with a grim past facing a grimmer future. It’s love at first sight when she meets des Grieux so off to Paris to be happily in love but poor. Way to go, Manon.

In Act II Manon finds she enjoys being in love and keeping house for des Grieux, but she doesn’t like being poor. For a while she solves that problem by accepting gifts from Bretigny (Jordan Eldredge), a very wealthy tax collector. But at the end of the act she is forced to choose one OR the other. I’m still rooting for her; I wish she had made different choices, but I still hope things will work out not too badly.

In Act III des Grieux is miserable over the loss of Manon. He hates her for her treachery and extends that hate to include all women – and all men too, for that matter – and decides to become a priest. [I shudder to think that even today some people may be drawn to the ministry for similar reasons instead of for their love of people!] Manon tells him that she is genuinely sorry for what she has done and persuades him to give her a second chance. She’s convinced him (and me) that she is now a different and better person, so I’m all on her side again. Particularly because des Grieux has received a large inheritance from his mother – they can live comfortably if not lavishly on the income.

The opera could have ended here as a happy love story. But it goes on to Act IV where Manon dashes all my hopes and shows herself to be nothing but a greedy gold-digger. She races through the modest fortune like Sherman through Georgia, purchasing jewels and fancy gowns and attending lavish parties. As their capital nears zero she gaily talks des Grieux into gambling because, “Everyone knows beginners are lucky, so you‘re bound to win.”

Win, he does, but who cares? Well, that dirty old man Guillot cares. His losses provided most of des Grieux’ winnings and he’s sick and tired of losing out to the young upstart. So he uses his considerable political influence to have them both arrested on a trumped up cheating at cards charge.

The opera could have ended here as a Camus- or Kafka-like tale of what a rotten world we live in. But it goes on to Act V where the father of des Grieux gets his son set physically free but still enslaved to his obsession for Manon. As our “heroine” is being escorted to Le Havre for deportation to Louisiana as a prostitute, des Grieux bribes the underpaid guard to let her escape and dreams of their going off to the new world to start a new life. But although Manon has been bursting with health in the first 4 acts, prison has apparently taken a severe toll and she is on the point of dying. Which she soon does in the arms of des Grieux after some beautiful singing. This time it is the end of the opera, but as what?

I’ve nothing against an opera ending with the death of the heroine (good thing! else I could hardly claim to be an opera lover). The death can be noble as in Madama Butterfly, defiant as in Tosca or Carmen, ironic as in Rigoletto, or inevitably tragic as in La Traviata or La Bohème. Provided it is logically and consistently led up to by the preceding acts, I can become emotionally involved and feel uplifted by my vicarious participation in the human mystery of life and death. But my emotions left me during Act IV and my only feeling is that this time the curtain is Final and we can go home.

I’m still experimenting with finding which seats I like best in Marines Memorial Theatre. This time I was in row C, center section, side aisle. Much better than row AA, but the sound was still not entirely blended that close and to the side. I’ll have a different seat when I go again this Sunday. Oh yes. I’m definitely going again. This time I’ll know I should not surrender to my emotions but try to enjoy it entirely on an intellectual level. If you live near by why not give it a whirl? Look for me in seat G1 during the intermission.

Dinners with Donald; photo from Manon program

My overall enjoyment last Sunday was enhanced by attending the “Dinner with Donald” after the performance. These are held after the first performance of each opera and take place at a nearby restaurant within easy walking distance of the theater. An excellent meal at a not too unreasonable price, random tables for four in a very quiet private room. Donald makes a point of table-hopping to spend time in leisurely conversation with everyone there. In addition to his unbelievable accomplishments as Artistic Director, Translator, Pianist, Conductor, and Narrator for Pocket Opera, he is a delightful person and I always enjoy my conversations with him.


The Opera Nut

P.S. Added Sunday 4/17/11

As planned, I saw Manon again today and as is frequently the case I enjoyed it even more the second time. I was able to completely ignore the dramatic deficiencies of the plot and enjoy each act for itself. Newkirk and Flowers each have such wonderful voices individually and they merge together perfectly in the many lovely duets. Although they lived in different centuries, Massenet could have been writing music specifically for the two of them to sing. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. – – ON

CAV & CAT* May 15
May 22
ARIODANTE June 5 June 12
June 26
FIGARO July 17
July 24 July 31


Photos: (Except where specified) Marc Janks

469 Bryant Street
Marine’s Memorial Theatre
609 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA

This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in on April 14, 2011

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