Opera comique en cinq actes. Running Time: 2 hours 39 minutes.
In honor of Valentine’s Day we have a famously romantic French work to offer. This is, even more than Saint-Saens’s Samson et Dalila, the most glaring omission from Sir Denis Forman’s A Night at the Opera. I’m not sure how this opera did not have three entries in the Deutsche Gramophone catalogue and so failed to make the entry cut for that book, whilst Puccini’s Manon Lescaut somehow did. Oh well, it is left for me to review then. The performance reviewed here is the celebrated 2001 Opera Paris production with Renee Fleming and Marcelo Alvarez, conducted by Jesus Lopez Cobos.
PLOT: Amiens, Paris, Le Havre, first half of the 18th century. (Act 1) Manon escapes being shut away in a convent by eloping with seminarian le Chevalier des Grieux but although they plan to marry (Act 2), he is kidnapped on the order of his own father and is about to be ordained a priest (Act 3) when Manon seduces him away again only for them to be arrested for cheating at the gambling tables (Act 4) and Manon gets sick and dies during a jail break attempt (Act 5).
LOOK OUT FOR:
Act 1: The Inn at Amiens. (38.5 minutes)
0: The miniature overture * takes us back in time to the 18th century but after one good gavotte it turns late-19th century French sentimental on us which is fine (and all of it will come back later in the opera, I promise).
5: Monfontaine (the minister of finance), the nobleman De Bretigny, and three actresses (Pousette, Javotte, and Rosette), are about shaking things up with the Innkeeper who is late with their dinner. There is one (repeated twice) theme here that appears and disappears rapidly but is a little beguiling. Dinner is finally served to a tuneful ensemble * Pousette getting the most out of her multiple soprano climaxes.
11: The townspeople gather awaiting the arrival of the carriage from Arres. The Guardsman Lescaut arrives to fetch his cousin Manon. The passengers disembark from the cottage to a rather furiously overblown chorus which overworks the percussion (tambourine especially) *.
14: Manon herself arrives to a naughty little tune in the clarinet, it comes back rather a lot later when she is being naughty. Lescaut recognizes her immediately but Manon does not him at first. She apologizes: this is her first trip outside of Arres and she is very confused and disoriented (her vocal flourishes prove it). Also she is worried about the whole going to the convent and never experiencing life thing *.
17: Manon is quickly introduced into the world of men * by Monfontaine who is upbraided in turn by the three actresses and De Bretigny, but he persists until Lescaut returns and drives the five away. Manon claims no wrong doing. There is a plot point here though, Monfontaine reveals that he has a carriage waiting for him and Manon to escape in….
22: Lescaut’s lecturette on how a lady acts * is held together by its strong orchestral backing (mostly strings and woodwinds).
25: Manon tries to convince herself, and us, that she will forget worldliness. But the actresses, and their fashionable dresses, entice her so. Her aria has a Gluck-like style to it *, rather close to faux-18th century music except when the orchestra enriches and gives away the fact that we really are in the late-19th century. In either case the pathetic nature of the number lends it some amount of believability.
28: Des Grieux arrives to the strongest music so far **. He sees Manon and falls in love with her immediately. They duet to the same music for a while. She tells him her history in a brief low temp moment: she is going to the convent (that is the history of Manon Lescaut, remember this in act five). This is the first reference to this line and it will return. The carriage appears.
35: Their final duet ** reveals a conflict of interest: whereas Des Grieux obviously has fallen in love with Manon, she seems more interested in entering the fashionable world of Paris; he is simply a catalyst for her to attain her ultimate goal. The three actresses are heard in the background, as is Lescaut as Manon makes her fatal decision and escapes with Des Grieux in Monfontaine’s carriage.
ACT 2: A boudoir in Paris. (29.5 minutes)
0: As Des Grieux composes a letter of consent for his father Massenet presents us with a sweet little prelude * based on our hero’s entrance theme from the previous act followed by a running theme in the upper strings. Manon is too precocious and so the lovers end up turning the task of one into duo work. Des Grieux finishes reading the letter rather liltingly.
8: A maid announces that Lescaut and De Bretigny are storming the building and they find the lovers with Lescaut challenging Des Grieux leading to a masterful if quick whirlwind ensemble ** (focusing on the lovers) as De Bretigny restrains Lescaut, until he discovers their wedding plans and goes from wanting to kill to welcoming his cousin’s fiance into the family. De Bretigny reveals to Manon that Des Grieux is going to be abducted on the order of his own father that very night and tries to persuade her to give up what will ultimately be an impossible relationship even if they were to marry. There isn’t a tune really here after that whirlwind but it is important to the plot. After the two men leave Des Grieux reassures Manon (who fails to warn him of the abduction) and goes to post the letter.
16: Manon is torn between the domesticity she enjoys with Des Grieux and the wealth De Bretigny will assuredly give her, but it is an oddly easy choice to make (she will go with De Bretigny). Her aria has a yet again 18th century-style to it *.
24: Des Grieux’s dream song of bourgeois domesticity might not impress Manon (in fact it turns her off) but it is a lovingly gentle piece **. There is a sudden disturbance which calls him away, he is taken and she regrets not warning him.
ACT 3: (54.5 minutes)
Scene 1: La promenade du coeur de reine.
2: We are in classical festival mode mixed with choral workings that are mid-way between Bizet and Delibes (they will return again and again in this scene). Then Lescaut comes on surrounded by women singing an amusing if low temperature song about gambling (important in Act 4) *. Guillot de Monfontaine and the three actresses return and the former engages in a dialogue with De Bretigny about how he has hired the ballet of the Opera to perform for Manon, and he is over with Pousette and Rosette (although don’t tell them!).
9: Monfontaine’s little ditty is far too short (ten seconds) for it to count toward star ratings, but it is followed immediately by what can only be described as a catwalk scene in which the women of rich Parisian men are paraded about and commented on but Manon finally gets a song of her own * about wealth and beautiful which is more vocally demanding than it is easy on the ear but all the gentlemen find her ravishing.
12: Manon’s gavotte ** is a mild divertissement about youth and romantic pleasure. In the second verse she starts to philosophize about things a little but goes back quickly to youth and pleasure. Its execution is more important than the musical accompaniment itself. This number reveals that she is essentially a kept woman.
18: Manon overhears le Comte des Grieux and de Brétigny as they discuss that the former’s son is now Abbe des Grieux, a seminarian at Saint-Sulpice. She gets more information out of the Comte in a recitative set to a mild faux-18th century dance tune *.
24: Monfontaine’s divertissement is more interesting for how Massenet was able to fake 18th century French ballet music than it is dramatically * and Manon is too distracted by impure thoughts about Des Grieux to take much notice of it and even before the end of the performance she takes flight in a carriage to Saint-Sulpice . You will enjoy it, but only just unless you are really into Delibes-style ballet music ala Le roi s’amuse. A repeat of the chorus which began the act ends the scene as Monfontaine is left mildly devastated that his attempt to win Manon has fallen so flat.
Scene 2: An anti-chamber at Saint-Sulpice.
31: After a brief organ music prelude a chorus of parishioners (all female) gasp in sexual fantasy after Des Grieux’s latest sermon *.
35: The Comte comes on also to congratulate his son, but for some reason he wants to dissuade him from the priesthood in order to secure the survival of the family name in a very paternally warm aria *.
38: With the Comte gone, Massenet finally unleashes the element of sex on the opera and we at last (after almost two hours) get something that is not just good but is actually amazing as des Grieux remembers Manon in vivid detail ***. The organ returns and he prays to God to release his heart from his memories of lustful nights of ecstasy with Manon, but it doesn’t last long as his desire to possess her again overpowers any sense of reason or decency.
43: Manon arrives after a fugitive interlude, the chorus sings a hymn from inside the sanctuary and Manon prays that Des Grieux might forgive her for her faithlessness ***.
46: Des Grieux returns and is confronted by Manon and her desire for forgiveness. At first he is able to resist her through rage and Christianity ** (the latter inspiring a tune that parodies Verdi very well).
50: Manon pulls out the big guns with her siren song of seduction by sexual escapades past ***. Subtle, to limited orchestral help, his resistance is basically broken at this point and they revel in her victory together to the end of the act in a sort of scandalous way (they are in church after all).
ACT 4 A gambling den in the Hotel de Transylvanie (19.5 minutes)
4: After some extremely brief grandiose music there is a meandering low string bit that continues about in an ornery fashion throughout the act (den theme) as Lescaut and Monfontaine gamble while the three actresses fly about like a trinity of greed willing to attach themselves to who ever wins big at the tables before Manon and des Grieux arrive to win the fortune she craves. It’s all rather ornery or repeated music from earlier except for two islands of melodic beauty as des Grieux declares his total devotion to Manon (we heard this tune in the overture but still it’s good) **. Lescaut and Manon get des Grieux to gamble, specifically playing cards against Monfontaine (a very bad choice).
9: As the card game transpires Manon finally gets her dream and sings a sparkling if dim ensemble number * with the three actresses. Now that there is no doubt that she is as morally bankrupt as the lot of them, Monfontaine accuses the winning des Grieux of cheating at cards (which he denies and is most likely a lie on the part of Monfontaine who is jealous of des Grieux for having Manon’s love).
17: The police knock at the doors of the hall and Monfontaine brings in the authorities to arrest des Grieux and Manon. The Comte arrives and is confronted by his son who is ashamed that his father has found him in this situation. This leads to a climactic ensemble **. The Comte will save his son, but there is no hope for Manon, her desolate life has caught up with her at last.
ACT 5: The Road to Le Havre (17 minutes)
0: Des Grieux keeps watch * (much of this is from the overture) for Lescaut who brings news of sorts as they wait to waylay the convoy that is to send Manon off to the New World, her sentence for being a prostitute (much of this is music from the overture, but the chorus is effective). Lescaut bribes the guards so Manon can be released for a few hours before the deportation.
10: Manon comes on to a minor musical implosion but the musical climax of the love duet ** is effecting and sad. She remembers past happiness, he tells her that that happiness can return but she knows it is too late and she will soon die. Returning melodies pop in and out for a while.
15: The Manon Death Scene **, in final agony and yet still enraptured by desire and love for des Grieux, she has one last moment of strength: <<et c’est la l’histoire de Manon Lescaut>>, she repeats from the first act and dies leaving a mourning des Grieux on stage as the curtain falls.
Manon is easy to love or to hate for equally valid reasons. Massenet’s parody of 18th century French music is amazingly detailed and greatly contributes to giving the opera successful self-knowledge, but this gets annoying if one is not inclined to chamber operas written by Gluck circa 1775. The story is gripping but like Puccini’s take on the Prevost novel nine years later the opera is extremely episodic with large chunks of the story occurring between acts (although at least Manon’s motivations for initially leaving des Grieux are better explained here: re. the kidnapping). Also like Puccini, Massenet gave his best and most inspired music to des Grieux. Manon is endowed by Massenet with an endearing childlike innocence in act one, but it wears off as soon as she has lost her virginity and only gets by in act two because des Grieux is at that point the only man she has been with and we all know that their love “is meant to be”. We are also never totally sure of Manon’s motivations (which is stronger, her passionate love for des Grieux or her love of wealth and material pleasure?) and this is uncomfortable. The score does have its weaknesses: by act four the inspiration seems to be dwindling and Massenet is obviously rehashing music from earlier in the opera and what is new is mostly either ornery (the gambling den theme) or dim (the Manon-Actress Trinity quartet). Act five works mostly because next to nothing happens other than Manon’s death. The only true greatness in the opera is in the church scene with its glorious aria for des Grieux and the re-seduction duet. There is also the fact that eventually Massenet’s parody of the 18th century becomes too obvious, even to those whose favourite opera happens to be Iphigenie en Tauride. But do not be put off by Manon, in the first three acts especially it is constantly entertaining and it is a great send up to the belle époque in which it was created, and even if the last two (very short and originally combined) acts are a little dim they are still able to maintain interest in the story. Even the one star items are entertaining here, they are just not to the level of the two stars which are in turn not to the level of the three star items. But as to its status as a masterpiece, that is debatable and a matter of personal taste. An A/A- but others might disagree.