Manon was not only central to Jules Massenet’s claim to international celebrity after its creation in 1884, it remains at the heart of the operatic repertoire and Massenet’s popularity today. Manon returned to the stage of L’Opéra de Montréal on 18 May after a lengthy absence to close the company’s 2012/13 season. Bernard Uzan’s naturalistic production, setting the work in its traditional early 18th-century guise, is a generation old and shows its age, remaining functional at best. Though Anne-Cathérine Simard-Deraspe’s inert lighting did little to make the staging’s age-lines and wrinkles disappear, it was director Brian Deedrick’s restaging that most needed a makeover. He felt unable or unwilling to let the drama play itself out and chose to nudge it in directions it had neither business nor reason going. (I have yet to understand why the three coquettes were blowing bubbles in the Hôtel de Transylvanie scene?...) His exaggerated comedic effects bordered on the burlesque (especially in the opera’s two opening acts), and reduced both the aged roué Guillot de Morfontaine and Manon’s cousin Lescaut to one-dimensional cardborard cut-outs. He was thankfully adept at traffic control in Massenet’s fundamentally important crowd scenes in which the chorus (adroitly prepapred by Claude Webster) shone with verbal precision and musical cohesion. Yet Deedrick’s direction of actors remained largely ineffective and robbed the work of a central and unifying dramatic thread.

Much like Verdi’s Violetta in La Traviata, the opera succeeds or fails with the central role. L’Opéra de Montréal was extremely fortunate to have engaged hometown soprano Marianne Fiset. Because of Massenet’s additions and revisions for succeeding sopranos, the role requires a soprano with not one but at least three vocal profiles. Fiset is perhaps more a Puccini Mimì (a role she has sung with the company and sings later this year at the Opernfestspiele in St Margarethen in Austria) than a Massenet Manon, but hers was an impressive and revealing characterisation. She evolved from an innocent young thing to a weary, world-wise coquette with unerring and disarming facility, and sang with equal distinction. If her opening “Je suis encore toute étourdie” had all the required sense of juvenile wonder, her “Adieu notre petite table” was as poignant as her “Je marche sur tous les chemins” was carefree. The Saint-Sulpice duet revealed a dramatic thrust and seductive undercurrent that made her death scene even more palpable and moving. Only in the extremes of Manon’s fearsome Gavotte was she tested (but nevertheless not found wanting) vocally. Elsewhere the voice spun with ease and distinctive beauty, with liquid line and plush phrasing and an admirable control of both expressive colours and dynamic range. Only a slight tendency to swallow her vowels marred her performance.

It is perhaps ungenerous to criticise too severely her chevalier, des Grieux. Tenor Richard Troxell stepped in at the last moment to replace an indisposed Bruno Ribeiro, yet he offered a vocally constricted and ungainly performance, both stylistically inappropriate and dramatically ineffectual. In stark contrast, the production’s revelation (and the word is not too strong) was the Lescaut of Gordon Bintner. In his first Opéra de Montréal production, this tall, handsome 24-year old bass-baritone, Saskatchewan-born but Montreal-trained, revealed a voice of burnished beauty produced with seamless ease and the best lyric diction heard all evening. Despite director Deedrick’s worst efforts, Bintner also commanded the stage with a rare charismatic presence. Both his “Ne bronchez pas” and “A quoi bon l’économie” were object lessons in style and vocalism. Like his friend and fellow bass-baritone Philippe Sly, Bintner represents the finest Canadian lyric potential heard in over a generation and comparisons with Canada’s finest singing-actor, Gerald Finley, may appear a little premature but are certainly not odious.

The large supporting cast was uniformly strong and included Alain Coulombe’s authoratative Comte des Grieux and especially Alexandre Sylvestre’s unusually complex and wonderfully delineated de Brétigny. The three coquettes, Pousette, Javotte and Rosette, were ably sung and portrayed by Atelier lyrique stagiaires Frédérique Drolet, Florie Valiquette and Emma Char.

Massenet’s orchestral score is a defining element of the opera’s success, and here again results were mixed. French conductor Fabien Gabel (chief conductor of l’Orchestre symphonique de Québec) was not only making his Opéra de Montréal début but conducting Manon for the first time. Though his inexperience was occasionally tangible, this was a hugely promising debut. With a clearly defined and organic technique, he quickly struck a winning balance between pit and stage (despite less-than-perfect onstage acoutic enhancement). His sense of internal pulse and phrasing (so essential in Massenet) was faultless and his attention to his singers and their requirements was musically reassuring and dramatically compelling. Capturing and developing an internal rhythm in any opéra-comique is notoriously difficult, but Gabel was adept at leading his charges forward. Would that his orchestra have been as clear and well-defined in their playing, but this was a poor performance which seemed under-rehearsed, lacking musical and dramatic impetus. Yet what this curate’s egg of a production shows is that, again like Verdi’s La Traviata, Manon is an opera whose musical and dramatic virtues far outweigh any performing vices you are likely to encounter.