Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 15, No. 2, 2016
  Current Issue  
  Back Issues  
Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nancy Snipper
Nick Catalano
Lynda Renée
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
Samuel Burd
Farzana Hassan
Betsy L. Chunko
Andrée Lafontaine
  Music Editors Serge Gamache
Diane Gordon
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Navi Pillay
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward


viva puccini

reviewed by



Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. His latest book, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor, is now available. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:

Giacomo Puccini's initial opera success Manon Lescaut, composed between 1890 and 1893, with a host of librettists including Domenico Oliva, Marco Praga and Luigi Illica opened the spring season at the Metropolitan Opera. The new production by Richard Eyre featured Kristine Opolais in the title roll and Roberto Alagna brought in with only 16 day notice to substitute for Jonas Kaufmann as Des Grieux. Massimo Cavelletti was Manon's brother, Brindley Sherratt was Geronte the wealthy, old tax collector, and Zach Borichevesky as the student Edmundo. Principal conductor Fabio Luisi led the score.

P uccini's opus is notable for many often noted features. Its verismo sociology would set the pattern for later huge successes i.e. La Boheme, Tosca, the revolutionary ‘constructive melodies’ typified by the early first act soaring "Donna non vidi Mai" would make their remarkable debut, and the orchestral doubling in the arias would set novel compositional precedent.

Puccini's life replete with trysts, liaisons, affairs and marriages certainly motivated his desire to capture the essences of passionate love and its consequences. It is the principal theme of all his work. From what we know he struggled for quite some time to launch his ouevre. He finally settled on an old French tale about a young woman who is destroyed by her conflicting needs for passionate love and luxurious living. The story is based on the 1731 novel L'histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prevost. The theme so intrigued him that he moved forward with his initial opera despite the immense success only a few years before (1884) of Massenet's opera Manon. At the time he said "Manon is a heroine I believe in and therefore she cannot fail to win the hearts of the public.” In response to his publisher Ricordi who had been against the project because of Massenet's success, Puccini stated "why shouldn't there be two operas about Manon? A woman like Manon can have more than one lover." He added, "Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion."

Puccini managed to make the story his own by injecting subtle vacillations of Manon's psychological despondency and ironic personality idiosyncrasies into singular recitativo exchanges. And his melodic motifs and arias brought forth such a flood of passion that the intensity of his perspective of romantic love was immediately hailed by the public as he predicted. No less than the person of George Bernard Shaw instantly named "the successor to Verdi."

The first three acts of the opera take place in various locations in France during the early eighteenth century: the first in the town of Amiens, the second in Geronte's opulent residence in Paris, and the third in the port of Le Havre. The fourth act is set in the outskirts of New Orleans, an imaginary place described in the libretto as "a vast desert." It is interesting to note that in certain European circles in the 1890s New Orleans was thought of as a backwater territory instead of the burgeoning multi-cultural city it really was. Perhaps it was this minor irony that caused director Eyre to move his new production into the 1940's. The Nazi presence in France is introduced in the first act and this time warp can perhaps be tolerated. But the presence of storm troopers in New Orleans in the fourth act is a painful intrusion of incredibility.

Indications of the composer's early ferreting are present with the insertion of earlier works he had written. The madrigal Sulla vetta tu del monte from Act 2 has the same strains as the “Agnus Dei” from his Messa a Quattro Voci he wrote in 1880. Some other strains come from his short compositions for strings i.e. The quartet Cristantemi (1880), three Menuets (1884) and a Scherzo probably written in 1883. The love theme has elements of the aria “Mentia l'avviso” written in 1883.

The difficulties that Puccini had with the multiple librettists are apparent in the opening of the second act. According to the novel, Manon had successfully been wooed by des Grieux after arriving in Amiens and they went off and were living together. But when des Grieux's money ran out Manon goes off to become Geronte's mistress. Puccini and the librettists decided to omit this part of the narrative. So when the second act opens we see Manon in Geronte's splendiferous home where she has been for some time. We are never aware that she had actually consummated her love with des Grieux. This ellipsis is unfortunate because her consummation with des Grieux might have afforded the composer the opportunity to more fully develop Manon's vacillating character. The ellipsis is, however, not atypical. Other operas have them and they always test the verisimilitude of the plot.

In the fourth act as the lovers wander through the ‘deserts’ of Louisiana, Manon is unable to continue and is near death. Des Grieux goes off to find water and is unsuccessful. When he returns Manon bids him a passionate farewell and Puccini's music soars. But Manon complains that her life has not been fair and that she is no longer beautiful. Before she dies she asks des Grieux to tell her how beautiful she used to be, and how he must forgive her character flaws before she dies. Her vanity precludes her listening to him tell her how much he loves her and how much he will miss her. Her character behaviour at the opera's conclusion might have been more convincing but for some gaps in its development, notably her betrayal behaviour in the missing part of the narrative after the first act. But make no mistake, the overpowering music in the fourth act more than compensates for the shortcomings of the script.

The singers for this production deserve plaudits. As noted above, French tenor Roberto Alagna had only a couple of weeks to prepare for a role he had never sung before. Mr. Alagna had been appearing in the Met's Pagliacci when Met general manager Peter Gelb called in esperation with the news of Jonas Kaufmann's cancellation. Mr. Alagna's performance at the March 5 HD presentation which I attended was solid and impressive. He is onstage almost continuously in one of the most demanding of Puccini's early tenor roles. Kristine Opolais conspicuously communicated the wantonness and sexuality which Puccini had in mind as noted in his aforementioned comments. Her acting of a character not as clearly drawn by the creators as it might have been was very convincing.

As for the production, which as I said replaced the original eighteenth century setting with dozens of Nazis during the 1940's, we have only Mr. Eyre's explanation in interviews to assuage us. It seems he saw elements of film noir in the opera and so decided to replicate the melodramatic darkness and despair of the film genre in his production. I went along hesitatingly until I saw the storm troopers in Louisiana. I was grateful for Puccini's fourth act waves of interwoven orchestral and vocal resonance which succeeded in sufficiently distracting me from the Nazis.


Email Optional
Author or Title

Excellent review. Looking forward to seeing this!

Dennis Panzer
Shortcomings of the script." Isn't this a prerequisite for Grand Opera? Boheme and Butterfly and a few others excepted.
I read this most interesting and informative review.
As always Dr Catalano manages to convey a complete course in just a few paragraphs.

By Nick Catalano:
An American in Paris
What We Don't Know about Eastern Culture
Black Earth (book review)
Cuban Jazz
HD Opera - Game Changer
Film Treatment of Stolen Art
Stains and Blemishes in Democracy
Intersteller (film review)
Shakespeare, Shelley & Woody Allen
Mystery and Human Sacrifice at the Parthenon
Carol Fredette (Jazz)
Amsterdam (book review)
Vermeer Nation
The Case for Da Vinci's Demons


Help Haiti
Film Ratings at Arts & Opinion - Montreal
2015 Festival Nouveau Cinema de Montreal, Oct. 07-18st, (514) 844-2172
Montreal World Film Festival
2015 Montreal's Off Jazz Festival Oct 1st to 10th
2014 Montreal Francofolies Music Festival with Lynda Renée
2013 Montreal Chamber Music Festival
Photo by David Lieber:
Valid HTML 4.01!
Privacy Statement Contact Info
Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis