Program Notes: The Irresistible Charms of Manon Lescaut

by Roger Pines

Manon!  One of the most intoxicating creatures in opera, she thrills with her top notes and touches all hearts with her untimely demise.  Numerous operatic composers have tried their hand at bringing to life this character’s special combination of frivolity and fragility.  From early 19th century (Daniel François Auber’s Manon Lescaut) to late 19th century (Jules Massenet’s Manon) all the way to the mid-1950s (Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude), we have not lacked for memorable “Manon operas.” There has also been a fine French film and the choreographer Kenneth Macmillan’s glorious full-evening work for the Royal Ballet. For those who like their heroines Italian style, however, there is only one Manon – Giacomo Puccini’s first great triumph, Manon Lescaut. After his first two operas, each handicapped by unfortunate libretti, the 34-year-old composer fulfilled himself with one of the most popular love stories in the history of French literature.

This opera’s dramatic source is the Abbé Prévost’s novel of 1731, L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. The story (part of a seven-volume work, Memoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité) is actually narrated by Des Grieux, who has become nostalgic about Manon two years after her death. We hear of the precipitous path they trod together, from their initial meeting in Amiens to brief happiness in Paris and then various catastrophes arising from Manon’s susceptibility to the lure of wealth.  The novel has her being kept by several different men, although Puccini’s opera does with just one, the wealthy Geronte de Ravoir.  Following Manon’s deportation, Prévost’s couple find themselves mired in a dire situation not referred to in the opera: Manon is about to be forced into an unwanted marriage, and Des Grieux wounds the prospective bridegroom in a duel. This forces them to flee to the desert of Louisiana (!), where Puccini’s Manon meets her sad end.  

Full of the fire of youthful genius, Manon Lescaut brought the still-inexperienced composer a gratifying success, one desperately sought by Puccini himself. While his first opera, Le villi, had done quite well at its premiere, his second, Edgar, had failed miserably. Married and already a father, Puccini was losing hope for the public and critical recognition that would ensure a comfortable life for the debt-ridden composer and his young family. Fortunately, he had a champion in publisher Giulio Ricordi, who never lost faith in Puccini’s talent and helped him through the painful gestation period of Manon Lescaut.

 Puccini adored the Prévost tale, despite Massenet’s 1884 triumph with his   Manon (“Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion”). The Italian’s version, alas, was plagued by probably the lengthiest, most traumatic libretto crisis in operatic history. This work surely holds the record for librettists, who can hardly take all the blame – Puccini, like Verdi, was an exceptionally demanding collaborator. The composer Ruggero Leoncavallo (soon to be famous for Pagliacci) got the ball rolling, followed by Marco Praga and Domenico Oliva. Ricordi himself contributed to the text, but most helpful were two remarkable wordsmiths, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, who would later produce the libretti of Puccini’s “big three” (La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly).

Ricordi assumed that, were the work to be introduced to the public at Milan’s mighty La Scala, it would be overshadowed by the wildly anticipated first performance of Verdi’s Falstaff.  The 1893 premiere of Manon Lescauttook place instead at the Teatro Regio in Turin. The critics seemed to agree that no young composer had ever taken such a giant step forward in his development from one opera to the next. All the reviews recognized immense progress in Puccini’s style, his command of orchestration and melodic shape, and his essential sense of theater. The composer became famous literally overnight, and his opera was soon seducing audiences in major houses all over the world.  Its American premiere came in 1898, but it made a greater splash in its first Metropolitan Opera staging nine years later. Enrico Caruso, then in his magnificent prime, appeared opposite the glamorous Lina Cavalieri. With a presentable if not exactly “Golden Age” voice, Cavalieri was recognized as one of the most beautiful women in the world.  (The story goes, sadly, that her death in Florence during World War II came when, rushing to an air-raid shelter, she turned back -- like Manon -- to collect her jewels and was killed.)

            Of course, beauty of person only goes so far in this opera, for one needs substantial, colorful voices to cope with the demanding score. What is also clear from the very start of Manon Lescaut will also be true of Puccini’s subsequent operas: singers can only make a success of the music by singing “off the words.”  That is, the text takes on an even greater importance than what we have previously experienced in bel canto and Verdi repertoire. A purely conversational element now becomes essential. When the singer launches a legato aria, the phrases themselves are generally shorter, the aria’s structure more compact, than what would occur if the same dramatic moment were approached in the earlier style. The big moments in Manon Lescaut are usually about letting go emotionally and imparting the sense of urgency that from the very beginning is emblematic of Puccini at his best.   

Like his contemporaries, Massenet and Strauss, Puccini lost his heart to his heroines.  Composing Manon’s music didn’t overwhelm him emotionally as did Mimì in La bohème or Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, but he nonetheless gave Manon music of extraordinary beauty and feeling.

In terms of vocal weight, Manon comes somewhere between Mimì and Tosca; the challenge is in managing to project a youthful characterization through a voice of substantial depth and size. A large number of celebrated sopranos over the decades have been major exponents of Mimì but have lacked the “big guns” for Manon. The role’s creator, Cesira Ferrani, was also the first Mimì, and one can hear from the few surviving  recordings of her voice that, when only 40, her technique was already insecure. One can only conjecture as to whether Manon, ten years before, stretched her to the utmost.  

             Manon begins demurely with her sweet opening phrase, “Manon Lescaut mi chiamo” (“I’m called Manon Lescaut”). Already in the first duet with Des Grieux, however, there are points at which the voice must expand in a weightier manner than what had been required of the soprano in Massenet’s version of this story. Act Two is one of the most demanding acts for any Puccini heroine, in that she is really three different singers: a full lyric soprano for the touching, intimate “In quelle trine morbide” and the duet with Lescaut; a light lyric, equipped with coloratura and trills (both required very rarely in any Puccini role) for the adorable arietta, “L’ora, o Tirsi”; and finally something close to a spinto – halfway between lyric and dramatic – for the climaxes of the love duet that forms the centerpiece of this act. A good deal of the first half of that duet lies quite low, in an area of the voice that most lyric sopranos have to “beef up” to make any vocal impact. Later in the duet, as Manon calls on every bit of allure she possesses, there emerges an overwhelming sexual energy that Puccini never equaled, even in the Tosca/Mario and Butterfly/Pinkerton duets.

Act Three belongs to the tenor, but Act Four offers Puccini’s soprano her biggest test, extending her both vocally and emotionally. The composer has demanded all-out feeling throughout the role, but the soprano cannot give so much that she has nothing left for the final anguished soliloquy. Here again there is extreme contrast, in that the outer sections of the aria demand spinto weight while the brief middle portion need an exquisitely heartfelt delicacy.

            Des Grieux starts off as a lightish lyric tenor; one could imagine the voice that throws off the airy, buoyant “Tra voi belle” belonging to a singer who could also take on, say, Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore. The difference comes through in his next aria, “Donna non vidi mai,” in which the listener can warm immediately to the lushness of a classic Puccini tenor melody, with a rush of emotion coloring literally every note. The role increases in weight to the point where, in the outburst on the dock, almost an Otello voice is required. (Many Des Grieux have also been notable exponents of Otello.)

            Lescaut requires a middleweight baritone with the ability to impart a light, devil-may-care quality to the voice while also hinting at something darker underneath. There is no real aria for this character; the singer must make his points in the many conversational passages, although Puccini allows him to let go with his fullest and most ample sound in the second-act duet with Manon, a significantly lengthier and more demanding episode than the Mimì/Marcello and Cio-Cio-San/Sharpless scenes in Puccini’s two subsequent operas. Geronte, too, must use conversation rather than lyricism in bringing out details of characterization; only in a brief exchange with Manon in Act Two is the bass given a chance to show real legato. On the other hand, this is no Rossinian buffo (although that type of voice is often assigned the role); the sound must absolutely remain full and resonant, allowing a three-dimensional figure rather than a buffoon to emerge.

The sparkle and bustle of Act One, the elegance of the perfumed heroine’s second-act dancing lesson, and the tragic colors of the intermezzo preceding Act Three all contribute to a wonderful musical variety in Manon Lescaut.  At the opera’s heart, however, is the ill-starred love story of an 18th-century Lolita and the young man who enslaves himself to her charms.  Their appeal to audiences is irresistible and eternal.

-Program notes appeared originally with Lyric Opera of Chicago and used by special permission.