Photo: Axel Zeininger/Wiener Staatsoper GmbH
Manon, playing a young woman who must choose between true love and a luxurious lifestyle.
Anna Netrebko sings the title role in
For more than 40 years Jules Massenet wrote a wide range of compelling operas for the French stage.
BACKGROUND: At times, in operatic circles, it's been fashionable to put down Jules Massenet. His popularity as a composer swayed up and down even in his own lifetime (1842-1912). His early successes included a number of hits at the Opera-Comique in Paris. But near the end of his career, Massenet's neatly packaged, dramatically precise operas must have seemed old-fashioned compared with the raucous new sounds found in Salome and Elektra by the young gun Richard Strauss.
Of Massenet's 30 or so surviving operas, two have remained constants on stages the world over. Both Manon and Werther show off Massenet's instinctual writing for the voice, his grasp of orchestral color, and his keen sense for building taught dramatic scenes.
Massenet wasn't the first to make an opera from the story of Manon, and he wasn't the last. In 1893, ten years after Massenet's Manon premiered, Puccini composed his own version, called Manon Lescaut.
The story, originally part of a long novel by the Abbe Prevost, concerns a young woman torn between true love and the lure of luxury.
She's opera's true "Material Girl," who, as in Madonna's pop song, likes her men laden with riches, "because the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right." Except for Manon, it's not quite that simple.
ACT ONE: In a bustling French courtyard filled with food, drink, gamblers and a few finely dressed prostitutes, Lescaut waits for the arrival of the next stagecoach. His cousin Manon is paying a visit while on her way to a new life at the convent.
This is Manon's first time away from home, and she's clearly excited by all the hubbub as she walks through the crowd with Lescaut. Almost immediately Manon is propositioned by a financier named Guillot, who tells her that any time she's ready, his coach will be waiting. Lescaut warns about becoming too friendly with strange men, but the advice is ignored as Manon meets Des Grieux, who has just missed his coach on his way to visit his father. It's love-at-first-sight, and with little convincing Manon agrees to leave with Des Grieux. Guillot has said that his coach was at her disposal, so they hop in and head for Paris.
ACT TWO: Manon and Des Grieux have moved into a small Paris apartment. Des Grieux writes a letter to his father, trying to explain his new live-in girlfriend, whom he says he will marry soon. Manon is touched by the letter — but not so sure she wants to get married. A knock at the door reveals Lescaut and a wealthy tax collector named Bretigny, disguised as a guard. Lescaut has come to reclaim his cousin. Bretigny has ideas of his own. While Des Grieux shows Lescaut his letter, proving his good intentions, Bretigny whispers to Manon. De Grieux's father has arranged his son's kidnapping for later that day. If she keeps quiet, and doesn't interfere with the abduction, she can live with Bretigny and bask in his wealth.
Lescaut and Bretigny leave, the maid announces supper, and Des Grieux runs out to post his letter. Manon is conflicted. She loves Des Grieux, but feels she may not be worthy of him. After he returns, there's a knock at the door. Manon tells him not to answer, but he does. There's a struggle, and Des Grieux is taken away.
ACT THREE: Massenet contrasts the pathos of the last scene by opening Act Three in high spirits. A crowd is gathered at the Cours-la-Reine, a promenade alonside the Seine, where Manon is happy to be on the arm of Bretigny. Everyone is there: Lescaut eyes the girls, Guillot hovers, and even Poussette, Javotte and Rosette (the "special" ladies) are seen running out from a nearby dancehall. Manon's happiness turns into the "Gavotte," a sparkling aria extolling her carefree life of luxury, and one of the best known "hits" of the opera.
Afterward, Manon overhears Des Grieux's father in conversation with Bretigny. After losing Manon, Des Grieux is about to take holy orders and is preaching tonight at St. Sulpice. Massenet breaks the somber mood again by introducing a lively ballet, which Guillot has arranged especially to impress Manon. But Manon can think only of Des Grieux. In the midst of the dancing she leaves for the church, again disappointing Guillot.
Mixing sensuality and piety was one of Massenet's specialties, and the next scene, in which the two former lovers meet at the church, is especially moving and passionate. Des Grieux, alone, pledges himself to God. It's the only way to relieve the pain of losing Manon. As the organ plays the Magnificat, Manon hopes she can persuade Des Grieux to change his mind. When he sees her, he denounces her for infidelity and asks her to leave. But Manon reminds him of their happier days, and at her physical touch Des Grieux caves in; the two run off together once again.
ACT FOUR: At an illegal hotel casino, the familiar crew of characters is in full party mode: Lescaut, Guillot, Poussette, Javotte and Rosette, plus a crowd of others. Manon and Des Grieux have fallen on hard times, and she makes it clear than when "their" money is gone, she will be, too. Des Grieux tries to improve their fortunes at the gaming table. Guillot is hot under the collar just at the sight of them. Des Grieux has good luck at the tables, winning repeatedly. But Guillot has hatched a plan of revenge. He'll keep Des Grieux busy until the police — and Des Grieux's father — can arrive. As the police enter, Lescaut slips away, but Manon and Des Grieux are arrested, accused of cheating.
ACT FIVE: Des Grieux has been exonerated, but Manon has not fared as well. She's on her way to deportation as a prostitute.
On the road to Le Havre, Lescaut bribes a guard to allow Des Grieux a few moments alone with Manon — enough time for a final love duet. Manon is desolate and gravely ill. She asks for his forgiveness for all the trouble she's caused. There's nothing to forgive, he tells her, reassuring her of happy times ahead. But Manon is exhausted. The stars in the night sky remind her of the diamonds she once wore. After one final kiss, Manon dies in her lover's arms.