Giacomo Puccini: Manon Lescaut (1893)

Opera in four acts. Running Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

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SETTING: Amiens, Paris, Le Havre, Louisiana, mid-18th century. Manon is a virginal girl whose brother all but sells her to Geronte, a elderly but wealthy man, while he is supposed to be shlepping her off to a convent. She is very willingly deflowered (between acts) by a dashing student, le Chevalier Des Grieux, whose single-minded goal to be her permenant life partner leads to him being temporarily rejected in favour of Geronte’s immense wealth, leading to her addiction to capitalistic materialism and eventual arrest, deportation, and death in a North American food desert.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Vfir1fcnAs

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: An inn at Amiens. (35 minutes)

0, 5, 10: The opening sequence starts the opera off with a very jovial theme * that dances about whimsically (it returns in some of the choral sequences later in the act). The first sung lines are from Edmondo, a romantic student who tries to chat up the girls for the next three minutes or so. Des Grieux comes on, they are all still talking about love, and he is prompted to a little ditty about how he likes girls of all sorts *. Everyone acclaims him to a flourish and they climax in a rush chorus on the jovial theme as the mail coach arrives. Des Grieux and Manon exchange introductions in a sweet duet *.

14: Des Grieux reflects on Manon’s beauty and innocence in the opera’s first great number **. The chorus pops back along with Edmondo and the orchestra exchanges in a fugue-like tune which gets repeated a lot over the next six minutes of plot forwarding recitative between Lescaut, Geronte, the spying Edmondo, and the villagers. Edmondo fills Des Grieux in on Geronte’s plan to abduct Manon and Lescaut’s complicit behaviour.

24: The second Manon-Des Grieux duet * borders into Meistersinger territory. It is at first sedate, apart from a single repeated soaring theme in the violins accompanying Des Grieux, but tries to break through though never really does. It also takes a while for Manon to decided if she is or isn’t going to fly away with him, but she finally does amid loud barks from the orchestra.

33: The act ends with Lescaut learning from Edmondo that Manon has fled with Des Grieux and consoling Geronte with the fact that he knows his sister, she will turn to the old man’s wealth as soon as she comes face to face with the poverty that comes with young love. In the last hundred seconds, the chorus comes out with a rendition of the same tune as Des Grieux’s first aria which prettily ends the act *.

ACT 2: A salon in Geronte’s mansion in Paris. (36 minutes)

0, 5, 8: The act opens with a flute-harp-triangle combo * which immediately alerts us to our luxurious surroundings. Manon preens in front of a mirror as she is being made jolie and her brother arrives. The combo theme goes on for several minutes before Lescaut philosophizes Geronte’s apparently disgusting sexual behaviour (relayed by Manon). Suddenly, Manon fantasizes in ecstasy ** about her desire to return to past sexy times with Des Grieux (apparently the tops in bed even if a broke straight boy). Lescaut realizes his sister’s sexual desires and promises to make Des Grieux into a rich professional gambler. The siblings contemplate a more positive status quo * (more luxury combo) before they are interrupted by a gad-awful Madrigal on a mythological theme composed by Geronte and performed by a hapless mezzo con coro. Manon has Lescaut dismiss the singers and he declares (in an aside) that he will bring Des Grieux to his sister that very day.

13: The dance lesson * is a somewhat brilliant bit of mock 18th century pastiche which Puccini manages to self-contain for eight solid minutes. The scene itself is grotesque as Geronte shows off Manon to a collection of roués and clergy of the ancien regime. The initial and closing minuet tunes are very effective, as are a series of vocal effects for Manon herself, but how can anyone dance to this really? A chromatic spiral leads to a catchy sung gavotte for Manon which will be taken up by the orchestra as the guests slowly depart the scene. From a theatrical standpoint, an effective and telling scene, entertaining, but nothing more and lacking a soul.

21: Now, Puccini pulls out the big guns: the furious reunion duet Manon-Des Grieux ***. Both musically and dramatically the climax of the entire opera, it frantically builds over the course of five minutes to a singularly divine tune which Puccini blasts from out of almost no where, first taken up by Des Grieux, then collapsed by Manon and then full on like a ship setting sail, the lovers then basking in apparent afterglow.

30, 33: The lovers are interrupted by Geronte and Manon insults him (fatally) by placing a hand mirror to his face and comparing him to Des Grieux. He leaves, promising to bring in law enforcement which Manon laughs off. Des Grieux begs Manon * to give up her desire for luxury and to choose his love which is obviously the only thing  that can truly give her the satisfaction she craves. The act ends with a frenzied attempted escape and arrest sequence **: first Lescaut rushes in and pantingly  tells the lovers that Geronte has the police outside surrounding the house waiting to catch them, second Manon rushes to stuff jewelry into her purse, Des Grieux telling her to leave it all, third the delaying results in Manon being caught red-handed trying to steal the jewelry from Geronte just as the police burst in. She is arrested and taken out, Des Grieux and Lescaut left to emote to some rather good orchestral bustle.

INTERMEZZO: The intermezzo consists of five solid minutes of gloomy mood music, all the while rehashing melodies from earlier in the opera, only now in slow-mo. It ends, obviously, with the love theme (it will appear and reappear a lot in the remaining half hour of the opera).

ACT 3: The port of Le Havre, a ship about to depart the next morning for the new world. (15 minutes)

2: A duet between Manon and Des Grieux * in which he relays a plot developed by Lescaut to free her. It is interrupted by a horrid song for a Lamplighter but returns for about a minuet ending in a repeat of, yeah you guessed it, the love theme. The rescue attempt is thwarted and the crowd comes on to see the female convicts off.

8: Now Puccini provides us with some good: the Roll Call **, a three minute long sequence in which a lot of good music is sacrificed to a rather bad dramatic situation. The most effective elements here are the chorus, the orchestra, and Manon’s chromatic vocal line as the men go about one of the stupidest attempts at rousing a chorus of townspeople in all opera. Lescaut tries to pass Des Grieux off as Manon’s wronged husband in an attempt to garner sympathy.

13: In a last ditch attempt (and as a concession to fatalism) Des Grieux begs the ship’s captain to take him aboard as a crewman in an impassioned aria * which probably wouldn’t work in real life but this captain apparently has a thing for tenors because he okays the new employee and the act ends with Puccini giving us yet another blast of love theme.

ACT 4: The deserts of Louisiana(!), no seriously, that is what the libretto says. (18 minutes)

2: Apparently Puccini ran out of ideas at this point because he went symphonic on us. The first thing of note is a rather passionate attempt by Des Grieux to revive Manon after her first collapse * (they have fled New Orleans after Des Grieux fought a duel with the governor’s nephew, although this isn’t mentioned in the libretto).  She revives to passionate mini-duet and a lot of orchestral stormy angst and a lot of terror from Des Grieux about how they are both going to die. Manon is oddly calm, most likely because she is dying and rapidly fading away.  Des Grieux goes off in a futile attempt to find help or water or whatever, leaving Manon to listen to yet another rehash of the love theme, this time dying a miserable Wagnerian death.

9: Manon contemplates for four minutes on her life and realizes how horrid she has been *.

16: Des Grieux returns, having been unable to find water, so Manon declares that it is time to die. She asks him to forgive her and tell her how beautiful she was as he constantly tells her how he loves her and will mourn her. The last two and a half minutes or so are very effective ** with some chromaticism and a repeat of the theme from the beginning of the act.

COMMENTS:

Here it is in all its blaring orchestral glory! Oddly, this was for a very long time my favourite Puccini opera, and although I still admire its lyricism and melodic imagination, I cannot overlook its massive dramatic flaws. This isn’t a terrible opera, but if it can be termed a masterpiece at all it is a gravely flawed one. The score itself is very melodic, and obviously indebted to Wagner, particularly Meistersinger, but also some elements from the Ring, Siegfried? It is problematic because the orchestration is extremely heavy, requiring singers to almost scream and yell to an extent unheard of outside of the most animalistic Verismo. Apart from Cavalleria Rusticana there really aren’t any operas that sound quite like Manon Lescaut in this regard. Why Puccini did this, or if this was a contributing factor in the opera’s success (it is the 52nd most performed opera on earth as of 2018 after all), remains a mystery unless it is because it was seen as a successful imitation of Wagner. More so than in any other Puccini opera, the usage of leitmotifs is no simply present but blatantly obvious. The love theme, first introduced in act two, is milked until it is bled to a pale white death by Puccini in the later acts (it is repeated five or six times), probably because he knew it was the only blockbuster tune in the entire score.

The rest of the score is entertaining, melodious, and perfectly fine in terms of tunefulness, although perhaps act four could have been better projected than to just throw in heavy Wagnerian symphonic elements, a wee bit of a cop-out to be sure. There are some moments like the Lamplighter that are ornery, but the real problems come from the libretto, probably a result of having close to a dozen different men work on it. The plot is incoherent and episodic, with each act depicting a single tableau in the Antoine François Prévost novel and lots of plot development occurring between acts. The original structure was to be in five acts, with the second act being similar to Massenet’s second act rather than a combination of his third and fourth acts. The episodic nature of the work is okay in the first two acts (in spite of the glaring jump in the narrative) because they are so long, but the only element that keep the shorter final acts from collapsing are their strong if singular situations (the embarkation with the failed rescue attempt and Manon’s wildly anticipated death). The characters also rapidly disappear as they become irrelevant to the narrative, with Edmundo gone after act 1 and Geronte after act 2. Even Lescaut, the third most well drawn personality in the score, is gone after act 3 leaving just the two lovers trekking it in the somewhat overlong final act. This makes the opera rapidly turn claustrophobic. This only amplifies the worst aspects of Manon Lescaut: its elemental fatalism and doom. For an opera that starts off so bright and cheery and talking about all sorts of profane and sacred love, Puccini leaves us not so much in the pit of despair as spiritually dead inside. His heroine, far from being sympathetic, is irritating and obnoxious. Unlike Mimi, Liu, Tosca, or even Cio-Cio San, you want her to die at the end. She isn’t good for anything, even seducing men like Massenet’s Manon, even if she is just a vain and selfish. Instead Puccini’s Manon Lescaut is a rather pallid virgin who becomes a gold-digging tramp, and rightly pays for her wickedness and greed with her life, all the while calling her fate unfair and whining to the bitter end. Why Des Grieux expends so much time and personal suffering because of her is anyone’s guess, he certain has better operas opposite better women to star in. I agree with Forman, a B-.

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