BY MEGAN LO SURDO
Manon by Massenet
Marist Auditorium, Newman College, 7 September
What’d you miss?
- A famous baritone pouring drinks at the bar
- A leading role with a kilowatt smile
- Full company singing with full voice
Arriving at the venue of OperaBox’s production of Manon, my first sight was of José Carbó, one of Australia’s premier baritones, pouring pre-concert drinks behind the bar.
When my companion inquired if Carbó was perhaps a little overqualified for the role, the star responded with a smile: “Just helping out!”.
This set the tone for the evening, and the all-in attitude of the cast and creative team continued throughout, down to the chorus acting as stagehands during scene changes. I left the performance feeling buoyed that so much effort and expertise was distilled into an evening’s entertainment for the simplest raison d’être – that beautiful music exists, people want to perform it, and receptive audiences want to hear it.
OperaBox has presented fully staged original productions of rarely performed works since 2011, alongside other recent Perth start-up opera companies Lost and Found and Freeze Frame Opera. These ambitious ensembles foster local talent and enliven Perth’s performing arts scene as, truth be told, WA’s state opera company tends to stay well within the lines when it comes to programming and production (the glittering Graeme Murphy production of The Merry Widow a very welcome recent exception).
Manon, following on from OperaBox’s celebrated 2016 production of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, had never been performed in Western Australia and after this evening I was stumped as to why. Massenet’s most popular opera contains some truly lovely music, and the story has all the elements of a classic: love at first sight, meddling family members, lovers separated, a reconciliation, and (usually, though not in OperaBox director’s Joseph Restubog’s production) a death. That’s not to mention some more unusual plot points, such as Manon seducing her lover-turned-priest-turned-lover-again on the Saint Sulpice church floor.
OperaBox’s production was anchored by the typical flair and precision of conductor Christopher Dragon, returning to his Perth hometown while on summer break from his position as Associate Conductor of the Colorado Symphony. He presided over a 25-strong orchestra of mostly student-age musicians who, though not without occasional intonation issues, provided an energetic and sure accompaniment to the action on stage. The sound was generally well-balanced, though at times I had to strain to hear soloists standing more than halfway back on the deep auditorium stage.
Jenna Robertson made an enchanting Manon, fully embodying the leading role with her kilowatt smile and crystalline voice, portraying the character’s journey from innocent charm to preening coquette to desolate repentance. Other standouts were Kristin Bowtell’s splendid baritone as the drunken cousin Lescaut, and Sitiveni Talei’s powerful bass, both enhancing each scene they were in. All cast members displayed impressive voices and dramatic flair (despite some occasionally over-the-top ‘rhubarb rhubarb’ background acting), as well as a good grasp of the French libretto.
While the opening acts were charming, efficiently paced and romantic, the third act dragged despite some vocal pyrotechnics from Robertson, and I found myself looking forward to visiting Carbó at the bar again during interval. Act IV featured magnificent work from the chorus, ending with the full company singing at full voice, a powerful highlight of the evening.
The set and wardrobe design was the most visually immediate reminder of the budget gap between self-funded productions and more established arts companies. However, it was easy to look past the sparse stage and occasionally awkward 1920s costuming, especially as those on stage were not only making fine artistic contributions, but also clearly looking as though there was nowhere they’d rather be.
Bravo OperaBox for a thoroughly captivating production, and here’s to the next one.