Wednesday, September 24, 2014


We waste the little Puccini we have. Puccini wrote two operas before Manon Lescaut, and we hardly ever listen to or perform this one. True, the earlier operas were written before Puccini worked out his distinctive style, but they were still full of good music. Even the early Messa di Gloria has proven to be full of glorious music. Puccini was so good that almost all the music he wrote was at least worthwhile. But added to this musical  savvy was an understanding of human psychology and a feeling for drama and the stage that made him into an opera composer for the ages. Le Villi was not even really an opera, but Edgar is fully engaging, downright terrific with a good tenor, and Ricordi his publisher, knew he had a genius on the line. This third opera was to make Puccini's initial fame, and he had decided on difficult morally questioning subjects, that Puccini was to broach in many of his subsequent operatic successes.

Ricordi at first tried to dissuade Puccini from this subject since Massenet had already written his version of Manon in 1884, and there had even been an earlier one by Aubert, but Puccini insisted on doing his version and took the idea to several writers until a version he liked, and likely shaped himself, appeared under a whole team of writers. Opera was a powerful popular force in this, its heyday, in Italy at the end of the 19th Century. The generation before had witnessed Verdi's works act as catalyst for the Risorgimento which created the Nation of Italy, and now Puccini was to launch another wave of influence which was to gradually transform many of the rigid repressive social and cultural attitudes to sexuality and morality. Where Verdi was interested in an agon between politics and personal love, Puccini was to investigate the less public domain of sexual politics.

The plot of the opera is shortened from its source book, a suppressed early 18th Century novel by the Abbé Prévost.

Act One shows a public square in Amiens, near the Paris Gate, a crowed ensemble acts as backdrop, and Des Grieux and his friend Edmondo emerge. The first sings of pleasure but his friend shows a melancholic romantic side. A carriage arrives containing Manon and her brother Lescaut, who is bringing her to a Convent to join the Sisters. There is also Geronte, the wealthy Treasurer General who is already captivated by the girl and has made friends with the brother. He obviously has designs on Manon. Des Grieux sees Manon and hastily makes an assignation to meet her later, and it becomes obvious that he has totally fallen in love with her.

Geronte plans to abduct Manon and arranges for a carriage. While he is gone, Edmondo tells Des Grieux of the abduction plan and Des Grieux seizes his opportunity, and declares his love for Manon, who is swept away in the carriage to Paris by Des Grieux, the others in pursuit.

Much happens before Act Two. Manon has settled with Des Grieux in Paris, until he has run out of money and then moved in, after all, with the wealthy Geronte as his mistress. She is bored amidst her luxury and misses Des Grieux. Lascaut is there hoping to benefit from his sister's fortune, but, realizing she misses Des Grieux. goes out to find him after Geronte leaves the house. Des Grieux comes and the lovers renew their passion, but are interrupted by Geronte, who Manon now tells she can never love.

Geronte leaves, giving them a chance to get away, but Manon cannot leave her jewels and is prevented from escaping by the police that Geronte has brought. She is arrested and taken away. Des Grieux is set to follow her to the ends of the world.

Manon has been condemned to be transported to Louisiana. Act Three is set at the port of Le Havre, and Des Grieux has come to see Manon amongst those condemned for transport, and there is a plan to have her escape, but it fails. At the end Des Grieux manages to get onto the ship to be with Manon to share her fate.

Act Four is in Louisiana. The novel has a sequence showing the lovers in decline in New Orleans, but the final scene shows them dying of thirst and starvation in the American desert. We watch their pitiful end. Des Grieux is offstage for her final despairing outburst: 'Sola perdutta, abbandonata', and he returns to witness her last breath before falling lifeless over her body.

This dramatic action examines the gradual destruction of a woman who is initially seduced away from a life as a nun, first by the passion of love, but then by an almost naive infatuation with comfort and luxury, which ultimately leads to her downfall. Her lack, perhaps, of a real moral core is her weakness.

Puccini repeatedly revisits certain subjects since there are a number of linked processes that he examines from various angles and at various stages of development.

The main one is the whole 'systemic' consideration of the 'fallen woman', in various social and culturally varied contexts from opera to opera. Manon, Mimi, Musetta, La Rondine, Cio Cio-San, and Sister Angelica are all fallen women to some degree. This is one of Puccini's recurring themes.

Connected with this is the function and nature of seduction frequently juxtaposed against the idea of truly, madly falling in love with somebody that breaches and trounces all these social and personal categories. Even Pinkerton convinces himself that he is in love with Cio-Cio-San, but he knows all along, that his ship will inexorably take him away eventually from his 'bride.' Des Grieux, who is the seducer in Manon Lescaut, is also one of the most honestly love-struck heroes in Puccini. Although he is the actual agent that gets Manon to commit to escaping, this seductive function is totally justified because of his true love for her. Calaf may be too self-destructively projecting onto his love object, Turandot, to even seriously count as a lover. He does not even meet her close up, until the end, when he finally tears her mask off, seeming almost more excited by the challenges she poses, than he is in a personal relationship.

Both the lovers, Manon and Des Grieux are victims of their circumstances. The whole predicament of the beautiful young girl forced by her family to join a convent has, in today's world, even more resonance and controversy than it did at the end of the 19th Century. Nowadays, even more than in Puccini's, most of the audience will automatically hope for her to be somehow rescued from this, and Des Grieux provides the remedy. Poor Manon is portrayed as so ingenue, that she cannot help but to be swayed by Des Grieux, but she later proves herself to be less swayed by lust or lasciviousness than she is by the even more recognizable desires for comfort, wealth, and luxury. Indeed, when Des Grieux runs out of money, she simply becomes Mistress to Germont without too many qualms. It is Des Grieux who overlooks her change of allegiance. He is really the victim of this tragedy, since after she devours his resources she turns to other men, and when she is deported as a dissolute, has Des Grieux come onto the ship to share her fate with her.

The Royal Opera production we will be seeing makes no bones about portraying Manon as a sympathetic victim. It is Des Grieux that eventually has to bear witness and share Manon's fate, but it is his extreme love for her that leads him to his own destruction. His is the greater tragedy.

Michael Doleschell keeps mostly to non-fiction, and is deeply devoted to music and culture and never tires of history, and is fascinated by science and the scientific method [as long as they are well explained]. He broadcasts a program of Classical Music for 3 hours every Saturday afternoon from noon till 3 on the U of G's Radio Station: CFRU.

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