Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 19th of April 2015 at 6.03 - 10.15 pm
Sunday 13th of May 2012 at 3.03 to 7 pm
Sunday 1st of July 2007 at 3pm
LIBRETTO (French, English, Deutsch)
LIBRETTO (Naxos: Fr/Eng)
MASSENET: Manon, an opera in five acts
The passionate and
wilful Manon, torn between her desire for a life of luxury and her love
for the young nobleman Des Grieux, ends up with neither, dying a tragic
Manon Lescaut................. Diana Damrau
Le Chevalier des Grieux.. Vittorio Grigolo
Le Comte des Grieux....... Nicolas Testé
Morfontaine..................... Christophe Mortagne
de Brétigny....................... Dwayne Croft
Pousette............................ Mireille Asselin
Javotte.............................. Cecelia Hall
Rosette............................. Maya Lahyani
Innkeeper.......................... Robert Pomakov
Lescaut............................. Russell Braun
Guards.............................. John McVeigh, David Won
Maid................................. Kathryn Day
Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orch/Emmanuel Villaume
hManon Lescaut............. Anna Netrebko
Des Grieux.................... Piotr Beczala
Lescaut......................... Paulo Szot
Comte des Grieux......... David Pittsinger
Guillot Morfontaine........ Christophe Mortagne
de Brétigny.................... Bradley Garvin
Pousette........................ Anne-Carolyn Bird
Javotte.......................... Jennifer Black
Rosette......................... Ginger Costa-Jackson
Innkeeper...................... Philip Cokorinos
Guards.......................... Alexander Lewis, David Crawford
Maid............................. Kathryn Day
Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orch/Fabio Luisi
Manon (1884) was Jules Massenet's greatest success, so it came as a surprise to me to find it not to be found in Denis Forman's marvelous manual The Good Opera Guide (1994) (thanks again to you, Peter Donovan, for bestowing it on me graciously and gratuitously). Puccini's Manon Lescaut (1893) is there, and also Massenet's Werther (1892). Why this anomaly? Forman states his criterion for inclusion: each opera must have at least three compact-disc versions in the catalogue; Werther had 4 (2 of them 'withdrawn'), Manon has 2 (both withdrawn, Victoria de los Angeles, Ileana Cotrubas). Britten's Peter Grimes does not get a place, either. However, the book has nearly 1000 pages, with the last eleven of them completely blank (without the fashionable caption "This page has deliberately been left blank"), allowing ample space for notes on Manon.
I studied the original novel at Sydney University for my degree in French (with German and Latin, too, and later also Hebrew): Abbé Prévost's Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731). I have it here on the desk. The author was writing from his own licentious experience, moving between religious devotions and voluptuous pursuits. Massenet's music for the opera is suitably suave and sensual.
The original setting is in the time of Louis XV, but the ROH and Metropera version of Laurent Pelly moves it to the 19th century.
I have heard Manon described as amoral, meaning she had no morals; she was un-moral, not just immoral; but she does have the mental capacity to weigh things up carefully, and when the choice between love and money is presented to her, she wisely (or cunningly) plumps for the cash and the things that money can buy. Nevertheless, she eventually flies to des Grieux, and drags him away from taking holy orders; and so hedonism reigns again for this loving couple. She is ultimately condemned for prostitution and deported to America. Massenet has her dying at Le Havre before embarkation; Puccini allows them both to reach New Orleans, where they die in a desolate place (more believable). In the book (page 243), des Grieux, chastened and penitent, returns home to France.
Here is yet another flawed heroine dying of consumption (apparently, but she does not cough). Do we have the same depth of sympathy for her as we feel for Verdi's Violetta (La Traviata) and Puccini's Mimi (La Bohème)? Let's test ourselves.
By the way, the comparisons with La Traviata are many: the couple's happy life together with the money running out; the interfering father; the gambling scene with the intervention of the father; the unhappy death of the heroine.
The soprano singing and acting the role of Manon will certainly look good as well as sound lovely; it's the woman known as "the Petersburg princess", hailed as "the greatest living soprano" with "stunning looks, acting ability and a gorgeous, effortless lyrical soprano voice" (Amanda Holloway), "a perfect combination of artistry and voice and honesty and stage presence and some special human quality" (Valery Gergiev, who discovered her, though he adds that she does not have the voice of Angela Gheorghiu); it's the girl from Krasnodar who started her career at the Mariinsky Theatre as a cleaner, namely Anna Netrebko. Partnering her (in 2007) as Des Grieux is the tenor Roberto Alagna (formerly known as Mr Gheorghiu!); in 2012 she is with Piotr Beczala (age 45 years).
Jules Massenet (1842-1912) MANON (1884)
This opera has received thousands of performances. It is the tale of the
love between the somewhat amoral Manon Lescaut (pronounced ei-moral,
should be un-moral; it is higher than immoral) and the sometimes
pious Chevalier Des Grieux (he will be a libertine, an abbé, a gambler,
and an unmarried widower). The original novel (1731) was penned by the
Abbé Prévost, who knew what he was talking about in the matter of
lubricious licentiousness. In the latter half the opera looks more and
more like La Traviata, but there is no mention of tuberculosis.
The place is France. The time is the 1720s, but stagecoaches may be replaced by trains or planes or buses in adventurous new versions.
ACT 1 Amiens
A bustling crowd at an inn watches the arriving guests. An old rake, Guillot de Morfontaine, who is the Minister of Finance, and his friend De Brétigny, and three flirty “actresses” accompanying them (for the record: Pousette, Javotte, Rosette) are calling out to the hotelier for service, to satisfy their hunger and thirst; eventually they go in.
The throng becomes excited when the coach from Arras appears.
Lescaut is with two other guardsmen, and he greets his young cousin, Manon Lescaut, who is on her way to a convent, for her education (finishing school? or lifelong internment?). He comments on her beauty and is enchanted by her.
She is rather overwhelmed by her first journey away from home.
Lescaut goes off to attend to her luggage, and old Guillot seizes the opportunity to approach Manon with an offer: he will pay her lavishly from his rich purse if she will give him one word of love. She laughs it off, but his coach is placed at her disposal.
Lescaut warns her against straying, as he is the guardian of the family honour.
He leaves her there, while he plays cards with his companions.
She admires the three fashionably-dressed women, but tries to dismiss vain thoughts.
Enter the Chevalier des Grieux, who is traveling home to visit his father; he falls instantly in love with Manon, and she is delighted, too. They soon decide to go to Paris together, for a life of pleasure; and they depart in Guillot’s coach.
ACT 2 Paris
Manon is living with her young chevalier in a simple apartment.
Des Grieux is writing a letter to his father; she has just turned sixteen, and he wants permission to marry her. He reads it aloud to her.
Lescaut intrudes with De Brétigny (disguised as a guardsman; Manon recognizes him). As her cousin he claims to be defending the family honour. Des Grieux shows him the letter, to prove his intentions are honourable.
De Brétigny tells Manon that her suitor’s father is having him removed from this situation, and he offers Manon his protection and a more comfortable life with him.
Manon is tempted, and when Des Grieux goes to post his letter, she says goodbye to the little table they had shared (not to mention the bed, and she doesn’t).
On his return there are protestations of true love, which are interrupted by a knock on the door; he goes out and is bundled away.
She looks through the window, and sighs for her poor chevalier.
ACT 3 Scene 1 The promenade of Cours-la-Reine by the Seine on a festal day
The stage is filled with vendors of every kind (lottery tickets, snuff-tobacco, hats, slippers, etc); men and women of all classes are milling around; they laugh, and drink to the health of the King.
The three “actresses” (they love putting on an act in public, anyway) named Poussette, Javotte, and Rosette, express their delight in their promenading on this escapade, away from Guillot, their jealous protector.
Lescaut appears out of the crowd and expounds on the subject of choice. What good is economy when you have a set of dice and you know the way to the Hotel Transylvania (a gambling place, coming up in Act 4). He sings his praise of Rosalinda (who? not Rosette?).
Guillot arrives and finds his trio in the company of ”three young clerks”; they flee, and he bemoans their fickleness.
De Brétigny asks whether Guillot would now want to take Manon from him. She has requested that the ballet from the Opera House should be brought to his house; he refused. Guillot says de Brétigny will lose her ere long.
Manon is now the toast of Paris, and she comes and presents herself as a sovereign queen because of her beauty, which she unashamedly flaunts, Let us profit from our youth while it lasts, she says. Then she goes shopping, briefly.
Le Comte des Grieux makes a surprise appearance in the city; he tells de Brétigny that his son is going to be a priest, after an unhappy love affair. Manon hears this; she pretends to be a friend of the woman he loved and inquires further; she then heads for the Saint-Supplice Church, where he is preaching (even though the Opera Ballet she wanted to see has just arrived).
ACT 3 Scene 2 The Saint-Sulpice Church in Paris
Pious ladies praise the eloquence of the young preacher, the Abbé Des Grieux; he is a saint!
His father calls him a new Bossuet (17th-century bishop and renowned pulpit preacher); but he urges him to marry a worthy woman and have children (he wants grandchildren, of course); and he will receive a share in his mother’s estate. Adieu.
The young man now concentrates on his devotion to God and his quest for spiritual repose: may a flame from God remove the image and name that haunts him.
Speak of the devil, and .... Manon is there, praying to God for the heart of Des Grieux to be restored to her. He enters, and the confrontation commences. Yes, I was cruel and guilty, but we had such love; forgive me. No! Begone! The dream has ended. She tries seduction: I love you. He succumbs, passionately.
ACT 4 A gaming room in the Hotel Transylvania
Lescaut and Guillot are among the gamblers, and the three ladies are putting on an impromptu performance. Lescaut is there to be with his true love: Pallas Pique Dame (Queen of Spades). Guillot has composed some enigmatic lines about the Regent.
Enter Manon and a reluctant Des Grieux; his fortune is running out, and Fortune favours the beginner with luck. He wins heavily against Guillot, who accuses him of cheating; he brings the police to arrest him. The Count arrives to support his son and ensure his eventual release. But Manon is dragged away as being the accomplice.
ACT 5 The road to the port of Le Havre
Manon is to be deported to America. Des Grieux and Lescaut have failed to rescue her, but the lovers are allowed to say goodbye. She begs for his forgiveness; she reminisces about the past (such as the coach they eloped in, and their little table); but she dies saying: That is the story of Manon Lescaut.
The following links are now inaccessible: