Richard Rodriguez Navi Pillay
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Excellent review. Looking forward to seeing this!
Shortcomings of the script." Isn't this a prerequisite
for Grand Opera? Boheme and Butterfly and a few others
I read this most interesting and informative review.
As always Dr Catalano manages to convey a complete course
in just a few paragraphs.