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Manon First, One Out 

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Photo by Opera Pacific

SEXY, ETERNALLY AVAILABLE AND WITH A bagful of pretty tunes to light her downward path, Manon casts her spell over operatic composers -- and over operatic tenors as well. Two of her operas, by Massenet and Puccini, remain as constant presences -- although not yet at the Los Angeles Opera, which causes me only minimal sadness. Two others -- a lacy, elegant setting by Auber and, as Boulevard Solitude, Hans Werner Henze's 12-tone version heavy on the irony -- are occasionally dug up. My ancient, tattered Dictionnaire des Opéras lists three more.

Puccini's Manon Lescaut landed at Opera Pacific in Costa Mesa last week, revealed in a generally creditable performance as an agreeable evening's entertainment if by no means a masterpiece cruelly neglected. Comparison between this work, the first of Puccini's to achieve hit status, and the Manon of Massenet is uncalled for; both are pretty, and both leave out major episodes from Abbé Prévost's 1731 novel for reasons not readily understood. (Massenet's sense of geography, at least, is the better of the two; his Manon dies on the road to Le Havre rather than in the Prévost/Puccini "desert of Louisiana.") The best music in the Puccini version is the charming pastiche in Act 2, the takeoff on truly terrible rococo madrigals that spells out the boredom of Manon's life in luxury's lap. From there the work goes somewhat downhill. Puccini had not yet mastered the shapely, heart-wrenching death scene in his later operas that holds you captive all the way to the final curtain. "Alone, lost and abandoned" (and dying of thirst in this land of eternal humidity), his Manon suffers on and on; some people in Costa Mesa tittered, and I can't say I blame them. At least John DeMain, Opera Pacific's heroic new artistic director, countered some of this built-in droop from his podium, with bright, no-nonsense pacing.

Sylvie Valayre was the evening's other hero, performing -- or so it was announced -- under the handicap of laryngitis, but delivering a Manon as shapely musically as she is in person. Her tone had an appealing, slightly darkish quality in music that others have been known to chirp; if that's laryngitis, perhaps we all need some. (By the third night, however, laryngitis had turned to bronchitis, and Valayre had to be replaced in midperformance by soprano Elena Filipova, whom management had wisely brought in as standby.) As her heartthrob Des Grieux, Hugh Smith sang out into the hall more often than toward anyone onstage, and did so with an occasional squall; the other men's roles -- Frank Hernandez as Manon's conniving brother and Peter Strummer as the sugar-daddy Geronte -- were dispatched along a scale from adequate to sufficient.

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All that, however, was as Callas and Caruso at La Scala compared to the dismal baggage visited upon the Cerritos Center a few days earlier, in the form of an Aïda dispatched (and that's the word) by a troupe with the grandiloquent name of Teatro Lirico D'Europa. I had thought this kind of thing was obsolete by now -- a gathering of no-talent stragglers hiding behind European-sounding names (mostly Bulgarian in this instance), roaming the countryside by bus and truck, handing out masterpieces on fragments of sets assembled from old boards and packing boxes. All this the program notes detailed as if in a set designer's wet dream: "The temple of Vulcan in Memphis. In the center of the stage is an alter [sic] carved with sacred emblems. Clouds of incense rise from the great golden tripods . . ." True to the genre, we got a Radames of traditional tenor shape belting out his approximations of Verdi's notes to a crowd imaginedly worshipful, a mammy-doll Aïda, an Amonasro listed as her father but clearly half her age, and a "chorus of slaves" with a membership of one. Listing their names might count as libel.

THE ADVANCE SKINNY ON HAPPY END PROclaimed the current production (which runs through this weekend) as a rare masterpiece rescued. Not quite; I cling to fond memories of a resourceful performance by the East-West Players in their old East Hollywood theater and a full-scale staging at the South Coast Rep. Both managed the bite and the nonsense of Bertolt Brecht's play -- which he disowned and blamed on the fictional "Dorothy Lane" -- and the searing impact of Kurt Weill's songs. Neither felt the need -- as director Randee Trabitz obviously does -- to enhance the drama with gadgetry including dim, campy movies, shadow plays and oversized puppets. Nor were they moved to honor the Brechtian concept of "epic theater" with singers declaiming from the rafters and a staging alternating on four opposite-facing platforms in a single room -- the deliciously named Sharon and Thurston Twigg-Smith Galleries at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary -- obliging the audience to shift small folding stools in a space that would surely have given fire inspectors conniption fits. (Couldn't we at least have sat on turntables?)

Happy End is a wonderful theater piece; its songs produce shivers. Its one remaining mystery is whether Brecht had actually come across Damon Runyon's Guys and Dolls or had fashioned his similar tale out of pure coincidence. Its history since 1929 is a whole 'nother theater piece: the riot on opening night when Brecht's brand-new wife -- the actress Helene Weigel, appearing as "The Fly" -- screamed out a left-wing manifesto as a way of drawing attention away from her two rival cast members (who had preceded her between Brechtian bedsheets); the music's virtual disappearance during the Nazis' time; the rediscovery and publication; the first complete recording, in 1960, with Lotte Lenya singing everybody's roles (and assuring me, in an interview as old age came upon her, that she always had).

Joseph Berardi leads a musically responsible performance, with something fairly close to Weill's original jazz band scoring (plus the inevitable electronic perversions). Weba Garretson is an okay Salvation Army Lillian, although she broke no hearts with her painfully uninvolved "Surabaya Johnny"; Dan Gerrity's Bill Cracker, as the fearsome thug tamed by music's power, rang out loud and clear. The production at MOCA is not quite a disaster; enough remains to suggest the original outlines. And enough also remains to revive the age-old truth, that less can often add up to more.

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