SAN FRANCISCO — Yesterday, she was a disturbingly sensuous waif on the way to the convent. Today, at the Cours-la-Reine, Manon glitters as the toast of Baroque Paris. Every man who sees her describes her with the same adjective: ravishing.
Sunday night at the San Francisco Opera, the adjective fit. Massenet's irresistible heroine was Sheri Greenawald, an American soprano who sang with uncommon sweetness, pin-point focus and compelling purity, and who looked like the embodiment of a porcelain figurine.
The hero in this marvelously sentimental Gallic romance is Des Grieux. He is boyish, impetuous, an aristocrat and potential poet who seeks refuge in the seminary to banish carnal memories. The female parishioners all but swoon after hearing his sermon. They find him fiery, they say, yet tender.
The crucial adjectives fit the hero on this occasion too. Now that his voice is getting bigger and darker, Francisco Araiza--the once-ideal Mozartean from Mexico via Munich--can have few contemporary rivals in this difficult role. Unlike most tenors, he manages the pianissimo refinement of "Le Reve" (the passing threat of a rasp notwithstanding) just as affectingly as he musters the forte fervor of "Ah, fuyez, douce image."
Greenawald and Araiza represent a distinctly modern breed of singing actor. They are youthful, stylish, obviously intelligent. They also are unusually attractive even by non-operatic standards. In her case that is an understatement.
Both convey drama with their voices, their faces and their bodies. They seek out subtle textual inflections. They play to each other rather than to the audience. Intrinsically tasteful and refined, they offer rounded, mutually sensitive characterizations, not star turns.
Ironically, this does not seem automatically to endear them to the modern masses.
The rather small audience in the War Memorial Opera House did get excited after the seductive passions of the reconciliation scene at St. Sulpice. Given this stimulus, only a stone could have remained unmoved.
During most of the performance, however, the responses tended to be merely polite. Several external factors may help explain the modified rapture.
The San Francisco house is three sizes too big for Massenet's fragile drama in general, and for Greenawald's intimately scaled Manon in particular.
The communicative urgency on the stage was hardly seconded in the pit. Jean Fournet, an old routinier from Paris, tended to preside over the justifiably tired-sounding orchestra with bloodless savoir-faire.
The physical production, a crude copy of the New York City Opera version designed for Beverly Sills, was uninspiring when it was new in 1971. Sunday it looked shabby, and the solid staging maneuvers of Lotfi Mansouri could do little but resuscitate ancient conventions.
Under the circumstances, Greenawald and Araiza were left pretty much to their own delicate devices. So, for that matter, was Massenet.
Telling support was provided, however, by the Lescaut and Guillot de Morfontaine.
Gino Quilico (son of the baritone Louis Quilico) conveyed the bravado of Manon's cousin with charm, vigor and an intriguing edge of danger. He might be a very interesting Don Giovanni.
Though deprived of most of his little aria and occasionally prone to buffo manners, Remy Corazza offered a crisp, imposing portrait of the surface-witty roue.
Thomas Paul introduced a time-worn basso, a bland characterization and atrocious French as Des Grieux pere. The ornate little trios of the flirtatious actresses were deftly dispatched by Li-Chan Chen, Susan Patterson and Kathryn Cowdrick. David Malis impressed as a suave De Bretigny.
This, in most secondary respects, was a decent "Manon." With such eloquent principals, it should have been more.
As the operatic autumn draws to a close, San Francisco should be looking forward to the spring and summer seasons instituted by Kurt Herbert Adler. Unfortunately, Terence McEwen--Adler's successor as general director--canceled the adventurous spring series long ago and now has discontinued the potentially glamorous summer festival as well.
His official announcement blames the failure of the summer project on a non-supportive public. Since McEwen's summer casting had often been shoddy, his prices high and his repertory choices frequently bizarre, the buck-passing seems unfair if not self-deluding.