Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s third opera, but it was the first to meet with widespread acclaim and to have earned a secure place in the international repertoire. It inaugurated a decade of triumphs — being followed by La bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. The choice of subject was perhaps unusual, not because there was anything odd about adapting an 18th-century novel, but because Massenet had had a success with the same story just a decade earlier. Perhaps Puccini simply thought he could do a better job of it (and all indications are that he would have been right to think so).
The story is that of a doomed love affair. There are three principals. The Chevalier des Grieux falls in love with Manon, but another man, Geronte, far wealthier than Des Grieux, also falls for her. She, seduced by Geronte’s money and the promise of a life of privilege, agrees to marry him, but does not give her heart. Later, Des Grieux and Manon are caught together by Geronte, who has her thrown in prison — presumably for adultery. Manon is put on a ship, together with a group of prostitutes, bound for the outer darkness (that is, for America). Des Grieux begs leave to accompany her. Upon reaching America, they wander about in a desert (‘near New Orleans’, we are told) until they run out of water and Manon dies.
I had actually never heard the opera before this week. I enjoyed it very much. In fact, I loved it. The music is gorgeous, the singing beautiful, and the melodies graceful and plentiful. I was at no loss to put together a set of ‘great moments’.
We begin in Act I. Des Grieux first sees Manon in the town square and sings a song in praise of her beauty: Donna non vidi mai (Never did I see a woman). Here is Placido Domingo; no subtitles, but the point is clear enough.
In the second Act, Manon is with Geronte, living a life of luxury. Yet she sings a sad song, In quelle trene morbidi (In these silken curtains), in which she reflects on the fact that her wealth does not make her happy, and she longs for love. Here is Kiri Te Kanewa:
My favourite part of the opera, on first hearing, was the finale of Act III, in which Manon is being herded on board the ship bound for America. The scene works very well: Manon is preceded by a sad parade of courtesans under the same sentence, leaving Manon and Des Grieux a few moments to express their grief at the prospect of separation. After a brief display of foolish bravado, Des Grieux begs to be permitted to go with her, and his wish is finally granted. Here is Domingo again, but this time with Renata Scotto singing Manon. No subtitles, unfortunately. The clip is a bit long, but worth it.
In the fourth and final act, Manon and Des Grieux wander through a blasted landscape (near New Orleans, remember). They sing a passionate, desperate duet, Sei tu che piangi? (Is it you that cries?). Here are Domingo and Te Kanewa again.
Des Grieux goes off in search of water, leaving Manon alone to sing her big, heart-wrenching aria, Sola, perduta, abbandonata (Alone, forsaken, abandoned). It builds to an awful cry of Non voglio morir! (I do not want to die!). Here is Anglea Gheorghiu, in a studio performance. Usually I like to select stage performances for these highlights, but this is too good to pass over.
The opera ends, as I mentioned, with Manon’s death bringing the curtain down. It is terribly sad, of course, but also terribly successful, and Puccini was to use the same formula in his next few operas. About which, more anon.