PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 May, 2010, 12:00am

Opera de Nice, Opera-Theatre d'Avignon et des Pays de Vaucluse, Opera de Massy and Grand Theatre de Reims
Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Grand Theatre
Today and Sat, 7.30pm

The most famous and enduringly popular opera of French composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912), Manon, will have its Hong Kong premiere this evening as part of this year's Le French May. But last month's eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano almost prevented the staging of the show, says its producer, Warren Mok Wah-lun.

While this production is co-presented by his Opera Hong Kong, featuring the Opera Hong Kong Chorus, its cast and crew is largely made up of members of France's Opera de Nice, Opera-Theatre d'Avignon et des Pays de Vaucluse, Opera de Massy and Grand Theatre de Reims - and many of them, including director Nadine Duffaut, star soprano Nathalie Manfrino (right) and tenor Florian Laconi, have had to endure worries about flight cancellations and delays before they could travel here from Europe.

'If the European flying ban had gone on for a little longer, we would have had to cancel,' Mok says. The people behind this production have had to scramble more than usual to put on a show - as well as be patient and trust that things will work out.

For example, barely one week before this five-act opera about a country girl turned courtesan was due to be performed, its costumes had yet to arrive in Hong Kong. But while the show's producer waited, he remained optimistic that they would arrive in time.

'I have never seen such a major production mounted in so little time before,' says the tenor, who also is artistic director of Opera Hong Kong and the Macau International Music Festival. Nonetheless, Mok is confident Hong Kong audiences are in for a treat with what he considers to be the best opera by the best French composer of operas, 'at least in terms of style'.

With over 25 extant operas to his name, Massenet found inspiration for this work from Abbe Prevost's 1731 novel about the moral decline and spiritual redemption of a Parisian courtesan.

Manon is known as an opera comique, but this does not mean that it is light-hearted, Mok says of the work, the first opera that he sang in (in the US, in 1986). 'Opera comique is a style, not a genre,' he says, citing the tragedy in Georges Bizet's opera-comique Carmen.

Operas of this type derived their designation from having been written - as Manon originally was - for Paris' Theatre National de l'Opera-Comique, a company established in 1714 to offer French musical plays as an alternative to the Italian operas that then predominated in Europe.

'And the style is that they contain French dialogue as well as singing,' Mok says.

'Manon normally also contains dance [ballet], but we had to cut it out for the production,' Mok says, citing time along with budget constraints as the reasons. Even then, 'the production still will be three hours long' and very much fits the description of 'grand opera', he stresses.

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