The lady packs a wallop7/6/2016
Is this the birth of a star? Sydney Mancasola comes to Des Moines between assignments in Berlin and London, playing the title character in “Manon,” one of opera’s great tragic heroines. She commands the stage on the strength of her voice alone, a soprano that, even as it soars, suggests midnight chocolate and cabernet.
What matters most, though, is her range as an actor. Mancasola wrings terrific feeling out of a face that, by itself, can set folks staring. Her features don’t just light up or darken, but also add shades of innocence or sophistication.
Is this a star? In any case, it’s the biggest “wow” in a breathtaking show.
Massenet’s 1884 opera was labeled “comique” — and this production captures its lighter moments — but things don’t end well for the pretty country lass at its center. Rather, “Manon” dramatizes a more recent formula — live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse. The woman’s highjinks begin when she refuses to join a convent, instead running off to Paris with a man she just met. In the city, she abandons him for a lover of greater wealth and position, and then she seduces a priest. In the cathedral itself, the man in black falls on the scarlet woman.
Such high-key colors contribute to the show’s pleasure. The sets don’t convert the space the way “Dead Man Walking” brought a penitentiary into the Blank Center. Rather, the brilliant costumes by Roger Kirk are used to full effect, especially in the skillful arrangements director Kristine McIntyre gives the group scenes. The crowd around the casino table at the start of Act III — a throng in firecracker red and gold — prompted applause as soon as the curtain went up.
McIntyre also found ways to capture the tensions in less crowded scenes. Early on, Manon’s cousin Lescaut insists to her that he knows best, and a spirited girl like her belongs in a nunnery. Lescaut even enlists a couple of fellow soldiers to help while Manon stands apart, arms crossed, plainly conflicted. The setup underscores the problem — a bad case of mansplaining.
Lescaut figures in most of the comic moments. He’s more con man than cavalryman, “a rascal,” as he sings, “not a hero,” and Michael Adams gives him a quick and playful grin. His cousin isn’t the only party person in the family.
The power of “Manon,” however, depends on the love story. The goddess demands a disciple worthy of her, and tenor Joseph Dennis proves up to the task. As the tormented Chevalier des Grieux, when Dennis duets with the woman he calls an “astonishing sphinx,” he winds up with his chin hanging out. He’s practically begging to be hit. The melody may feel like a caress, but the lady packs a wallop.
Overheard In The Lobby: The third opera of the season, “Orphée et Eurydice,” plays on July 10, 12 and 15…. Pyramid Theater, the city’s first African American company, debuts with “Raisin in the Sun” July 8. CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.