Manon Lescaut: an all-round success

By Dominic McHugh, 2006

When asked which of Puccini’s operas gained the best reception at the time of its first staging, you might expect the answer to be Tosca, Madama Butterfly or La bohème.  After all, these are the most performed and best loved of his stage works.  And, with Turandot, they contain some of the most familiar of the composer’s arias to the public at large.

But in fact, there was only one premiere of a Puccini opera during the composer’s lifetime when public and press were unanimous in awarding unequivocal praise: the first performance of Manon Lescaut.

It took place at the Teatro Regio, Turin, on 1 February 1893.  Italy’s prime opera house, La Scala, Milan, was too preoccupied with the first production of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff (which opened on 9 February), to be able to deal with an additional big new opera in a short space of time.  Another reason for the choice of venue was that Puccini’s publisher Ricordi, who was in charge of placing the operas in theatres, wanted to make a statement about the importance of the work.  The great Verdi’s major new opera would probably have overshadowed the young Puccini’s third work had the two run concurrently at the same theatre.  By moving the focus to Turin, Ricordi gave Manon Lescaut the chance to shine on its own.

And it worked.  The Milanese critics came to report on the event – for event it was – each of them praising the piece, though in slightly different ways.  One commented on the symphonic brilliance of the music; another on the opera’s vitality; whilst others praised its opportunities for vocal finesse.  It was seen as ‘modern’, ‘Wagnerian’, and in the best ‘Italian’ style at one and the same time.  Meanwhile, the audience response was ecstatic, giving composer and cast around thirty curtain calls (depending on which account you read).

Contrast this with the reception of Madama Butterfly a few years later, which Puccini described as ‘a real lynching’ – or of La bohème, an ‘aberration’ according to the critics – or Tosca, which had a lukewarm reception from audiences at first, though they soon came round – and you can see what the triumph of Manon Lescaut must have meant to the composer.  Indeed, he once claimed that out of all his works it was the opera which caused him the least worry.  A slight exaggeration perhaps, in that he modified or cut various passages several times through his life.  But he was always convinced by the quality of his music and the effectiveness of the drama.

So why did Puccini choose to set Abbé Prévost’s novel for the stage?  The courtesan in opera was nothing new, of course, familiar not least from Verdi’s La traviata.  The Manon story had already been set by two French composers: Daniel François-Esprit Auber (1856) and Jules Massenet (1884).  The former effort faded into obscurity long ago; but the latter is still in the repertoire and even preferred by some to Puccini’s version.

Massenet’s Manon is no less of a masterpiece, but it’s quite different in some respects, and the early scenes must have influenced Puccini to some extent.  The French composer holds a tension between Manon’s love of money and love for Des Grieux all the way through his opera, perhaps more successfully than Puccini.  From the start, these two opposing priorities are sown into the libretto, and the audience is held in suspense as to the plot’s resolution.  She may be dying in her lover’s arms; but as Julian Budden (in his brilliant ‘Master Musicians’ study of the composer) has adroitly observed, Manon’s last-minute reference to a star in the sky as ‘a beautiful diamond’ may show her true priority.  As Budden writes, ‘Are not diamonds a girl’s best friend?’.

It was inevitable that Puccini’s decision to set Manon only nine years after Massenet’s opera had first been given would be interpreted as the Italian composer’s challenge to his colleague on French ground – and reasonably so.  Although the Italian premiere of Massenet’s Manon had not yet taken place, its reputation was extremely high worldwide, and Puccini knew the opera from a copy of the vocal score.  Ricordi objected to another Manon so soon, and Puccini replied that that sort of woman ‘can have more than one lover’.

Also, when one of his many librettists for this opera questioned the composer on the wisdom of following a successful, ‘authentically’ French Manon with another version quite so soon, Puccini responded by contrasting the national styles of the two.  ‘Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with the powder and the minuets.  I shall feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion,’ he said.  This goes some way to indicating a verismo approach on Puccini’s part, though Manon Lescaut is not veristic in the sense of either Tosca or Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana.

We should not overemphasise the idea of the ‘challenge’, however.  Puccini undoubtedly felt attracted by the story and what he could do with it, even if an artistic confrontation with Massenet was at the back of his mind.  In particular, the central character of the heroine was to become one of his most fascinating creations, perhaps second only to Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly in complexity.  Critics frequently complain about Manon’s inexplicable changes of personality, flitting from the old roué, Geronte, to the young poet, Des Grieux, and back again.  The truth is, though, that she is a strong character, unwilling to be bound by one or the other.  Puccini nearly always focuses on her.  And if this is occasionally at the expense of the other (male) characters, as happens in one or two of Puccini’s works, their two dimensionality often serves as a contrast to the intricacy of the strong, female character.

The genesis of Manon Lescaut is somewhat complicated, because of the number of librettists involved.  They include Leoncavallo, Praga, Oliva and Illica – even Puccini contributed lines.  Marco Praga was probably the first to be involved, but as a playwright he felt he had insufficient experience to write an opera libretto alone.  So Domenico Oliva was brought in to write the verses, with Praga sculpting the drama.  Their libretto was read to the composer and his publisher, but Puccini was dissatisfied with the scheme of the acts, so Praga withdrew.

Oliva evidently became sick of Puccini’s criticisms, though he continued to contribute to the versification of the libretto.  Ricordi then introduced Ruggero Leoncavallo, the young composer who would later write Pagliacci, to Puccini.  Leoncavallo made additions to the final act and suggestions for the second.  However, Puccini continued to be unhappy with this act, and by early 1892 a new figure appeared: Luigi Illica.  The latter became the librettist for some of Puccini’s most successful works, and he managed to craft a second act to suit the demanding composer.  Complications about the ‘embarkation’ scene of the third act took a little time to resolve, but Illica reached a satisfactory solution, and the opera was completed by November 1892.

Although Puccini is seen as being a little capricious about his librettists, his ultimate motive was in crafting the text in the strongest way possible for musical treatment.  Nearly all of the great opera composers were concerned with the state of their libretti before they started composing – witness the correspondence of the Strauss/Hoffmansthal and Verdi/Boito partnerships.  Although in the case of Manon Lescaut the number of collaborators may have left unresolved weaknesses in the focus and pacing of the drama, Puccini’s score dishes up such sublime moments as Des Grieux’s Act I aria and the Des Grieux/Manon duets in the second and third acts that audiences are unlikely to feel that the weaknesses impair the impact of the whole.

Setting scenes with orchestral colour was one of Puccini’s greatest talents, and he uses this to underpin the structure of the work.  Each act of the opera is like a separate ‘painting’, describing location, atmosphere and action; the four paintings come together almost as if in a coherent ‘exhibition’.  That’s not to say that the content of each act is static, but rather that each is a tightly-conceived separate statement.  The same could perhaps be said of the four very different acts of La bohème – even though the last act returns to the same place as in the first, we experience it in quite a different light, having heard the contrasting colours and emotions of the intermediate acts.  So we should not be so quick to accuse Puccini of disjointedness in Manon, where each act is carefully conceived as an entity in its own, even if the deletion of the original second act is seen by some as detrimental to the explanation of some of the characters’ motives.

Most of Puccini’s operas dive in with memorable gestures, and Manon Lescaut is no exception to this.  The opera opens on a scene of public festivity, which Puccini describes with a vibrant flourish.  Amiens is the background to all the action, and the glamour of the location sets the tone for the act.  Here Des Grieux’s love for Manon appears to be simple; her power over him is muted, without quite indicating its threat to his happiness.  Following a long-standing convention of Italian opera in the nineteenth-century, one of the characters sings a song in the story.  Indeed ‘songs’ appear in several:  student Edmondo sings a sentimental madrigal, which is then taken up by the whole ensemble of his student friends.  It adds to the exuberance of the scene, and paves the way for the arrival of the poet Des Grieux, who sings a light, ironic aria in response to the students’ questions about his experience of love.  In the second act there is a series of entertainments, including a madrigal which essentially depicts Geronte and Manon’s relationship in an idealistic light; and the lamplighter has a brief song in the third act, illustrating the rival claims of love and money in a girl’s heart.

After Edmondo’s song, Des Grieux no sooner refutes the idea of his being capable of falling in love than he meets Manon, who tells him her name in a memorable phrase – ‘Manon Lescaut mi chiamo’.  She has just arrived with her brother, Lescaut, and a fellow-traveller, Geronte.  Des Grieux discovers that Manon is about to enter a convent, and when she goes to join her brother, Des Grieux sings of his love for her, intoning the music and words by which Manon introduced herself.  ‘Manon Lescaut mi chiamo’ becomes one of the backbones of the aria, sung several times emphatically to illustrate the poet’s new and fatal obsession.

Later in the act, Geronte finds out about Des Grieux and Manon’s elopement, and he tells Lescaut of his intention to pursue them.  However, Manon’s brother advises Geronte that she will soon become discontented with a student’s lifestyle; she will be inclined to leave Des Grieux if Geronte offers her his wealth.  So Act I ends with the two men being certain of the power of money over Manon.  And Act II opens on a scene which confirms this.  Bored with poverty, Manon has become Geronte’s mistress.  Originally, Act II depicted Manon and Des Grieux at the latter’s lodgings, but Puccini was unhappy with this and eventually insisted on its removal.  His solution is in some ways ideal, probably avoiding the sentimentality of the original scenario by moving straight to Manon’s residence with Geronte rather than dwelling on potentially insipid romantic scenes.  We do, however, lose a sense of why Manon becomes restless in this life of poverty, and the time lapse upsets the continuity.

Instead of this planned scene, the second act aria “In quelle trine morbide” (‘In those soft lace hangings’) has Manon describe how empty she feels in her new way of life, longing for the genuine love she had with Des Grieux, in spite of his financial hardship.  Dramatic economy was one of Puccini’s great assets, and in this brief aria we are told how she feels about both men and both lifestyles.  So perhaps the loss of the second act is not entirely unresolved, as the contrast is presented in a nutshell in Manon’s aria.

The final act also comes in for criticism quite regularly, because it is basically a drawn-out death scene – nothing much happens in terms of action.  Yet it is beautifully depicted in the music, and well-planned in some ways.  A duet between Manon and Des Grieux explains their presence and describes Manon’s despair and physical inability to go on any further – they are far from food, water and shelter.  The centrepiece to the act is an aria for Manon when Des Grieux goes to look for help – “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” (‘Alone, lost, abandoned’).  Manon cries that she does not want to die, but as with many an operatic heroine, fate has decreed otherwise, and Des Grieux collapses with grief.

Although it’s not performed all that often, Manon Lescaut is an important work in Puccini’s development and it’s remarkably effective in performance.  The flexibility of the orchestra in both illustrating mood and accompanying the singers reaches a new level of sophistication.  The heroine is one of the most compelling of Puccini’s creations.  And the drama is tautly conceived, which should suit the raw energy of Opera Holland Park’s performing style.

The opera’s impact was so great at its first performances that its composer was at last recognised for the genius he really was.  It was on the basis of hearing Manon Lescaut that George Bernard Shaw wrote, ‘Puccini looks to me more like the heir of Verdi than any of his rivals’.  Prescience indeed.