Massenet's Manon

Natalie Dessay revels in one of the great operatic roles at the Théâtre du Capitole

Natalie Dessay as Manon in Toulouse

Massenet's opera about the highs and lows of the life of Manon Lescaut is based on a novel by the Abbé Prévost that scandalised France when it was first published in the 1730s.

In Massenet's (tweaked) version, the heroine of the title runs away with a young nobleman before dropping him when the young man's father pays her off. She lives the Parisian highlife and becomes the toast of the town before realising she misses her young nobleman (who has since become a priest).

She seduces him, drags him back to the merry whirl only for both of them to be arrested. On the way to the coast to be deported, she dies. And that, as she says with her last breath, is the story of Manon.

In this production at the Théâtre du Capitole, soprano Natalie Dessay – in what looks to be her final operatic appearance – throws herself into the character of this flibbertigibbet and, more importantly, makes her sympathetic. Everyone makes mistakes, Dessay seems to plead – and Manon is certainly punished for hers.

Natalie Dessay and Charles Castronovo in ManonTenor Charles Castronovo is perfectly cast as the charming Chevalier des Grieux with a streak of naïveté. Nor is he overshadowed by Dessay's performance – which is no mean feat. His anguish at losing Manon and his desperation when she wins him back are evident – and the degree to which his world has been sent awry is visible in Chantal Thomas's set design which gives des Grieux's church a striking lean on the stage (pictured above).

But overall, Laurent Pelly's staging is as light as a brioche. Manon may have a tragic ending, but that's no reason not to have fun along the way. From the corpulent inn keeper of the opening scene (sung by bass-baritone Christian Tréguier) to the female congregation a little too keen on their handsome new priest, his staging is packed with the cartoonish characters and petty concerns of 19th-century high society.

In the pit, conductor Jesús López Cobos was meticulous – though you could feel Dessay straining at the leash on occasion.

And it was Dessay who defined this performance. Much like the character she was playing, Dessay was clearly determined to enjoy her last roll of the operatic dice. The audience's applause wasn't just for a sparkling performance, but a brilliant career coming to its end.

'Manon' is on at the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse until 15 October. Photos: Patrice Nin