Puccini's Material Girl: 'Manon Lescaut'

From Houston Grand Opera

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THE HIT SINGLE

Early in Act One, Des Grieux sees Manon for the first time. Thunderstruck by her beauty, he sings the aria, "Donna non vidi mai" — "I've never seen such a woman." Placido Domingo made this recording in 1972.

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The B Side

In the second act aria "In quelle trine morbide," Manon realizes that Geronte has given her everything she has ever wanted — except the passion of true love. It's sung here by soprano Montserrat Caballe.

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Karita Mattila and Vladimir Galouzine

Manon (Karita Mattila) is sentenced to exile and, not wanting to lose her, Des Grieux (Vladimir Galouzine) arranges to share her fate, in Houston Grand Opera's production of Manon Lescaut. Brett Coomer/Houston Grand Opera hide caption

itoggle caption Brett Coomer/Houston Grand Opera

What do Jules Massenet, Madonna, Giacomo Puccini and Cyndi Lauper all have in common? As it happens, they all came up with music portraying women who know exactly what they want, and who aren't shy about admitting it.

Cyndi Lauper had a hit in 1983 with "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." Madonna expressed a similar sentiment two years later in "Material Girl" — which includes the unabashed lyric, "'cause the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right."

As for Puccini and Massenet, they both wrote operas about a fictional material girl named Manon Lescaut. She had similar requirements for Mr. Right, and she also had a whole lot of fun — at least for a while.

Actually, it was a fellow named Antoine-Francois Prevost d'Exile, more commonly known as the Abbe Prevost, who got it all started. In the 1700s, he wrote a sensational, multi-volume series of novels. The last of them was Manon Lescaut — the story of a willfull young woman torn between true love and a life of luxury. The book did so well that Massenet, Puccini and a third composer, Daniel Auber, all set it to music.

Auber's version appeared first, in 1856, and has all but disappeared. Massenet's take on the story appeared in 1884, and Puccini followed in 1893. Both works were smash hits pretty much right from the start, and have stayed in the repertory ever since. Still, the two are very different operas. Puccini put it this way: "Massenet feels the subject as a Frenchman, with the powder and the minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion."

In Puccini's Manon Lescaut, as in many of his operas, the female lead comes to a bad end. Back in the Abbe Prevost's day, and in Puccini's, as well, people might well have thought that Manon got exactly what she deserved. After all, she did take up with two different guys, getting just what she wanted from each of them, but without committing to a "respectable" relationship with either one. In fact, both men wanted exclusive relationships, and she told them to forget it. In the opera — and the novel — society punishes Manon for her brazen behavior. She's arrested for theft and prostitution, imprisoned and then exiled.

Today's audiences may not be quite so quick to dismiss Manon as a woman of loose morals. In fact, she could easily be seen as a sort of forward-thinking, iron-willed heroine — a woman who knew what she wanted and simply set about getting it. So, who was Manon: feminist, or floozy?

On World of Opera, you can decide for yourself as host Lisa Simeone brings us Puccini's Manon Lescaut in a production from Houston Grand Opera, starring soprano Karita Mattila as Manon and tenor Vladimir Galouzine as Des Grieux.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

The Story of 'Manon Lescaut'

Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Karita Mattila

Lescaut (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) and Manon (Karita Mattila) both admire her beauty, in the Houston production of Puccini's opera. Brett Coomer/Houston Grand Opera hide caption

itoggle caption Brett Coomer/Houston Grand Opera
Soprano Karita Mattila as Manon

Manon (Karita Mattila) calls to Des Grieux from prison in Act Three of Manon Lescaut. Brett Coomer/Houston Grand Opera hide caption

itoggle caption Brett Coomer/Houston Grand Opera

WHO'S WHO?

  • Karita Mattila ....... Manon Lescaut
  • Teddy Tahu Rhodes ........ Lescaut
  • Vladimir Galouzine ....... des Grieux
  • Dale Travis ..................Geronte
  • Jon Kolbet ........... Dancing Master
  • Arturo Chacon-Cruz ........Edmondo
  • Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus
  • Patrick Summers, conductor

ACT ONE opens at a roadside inn near Amiens, France. While young students and townspeople entertain themselves, a stagecoach arrives. Its passengers include a rich, old man named Geronte. Others are a young soldier named Lescaut and his beautiful sister, Manon. When the three stop at the inn, one of the young men is smitten by Manon and engages her in conversation. He is the Chevalier des Grieux and, despite his high-sounding title, he is penniless.

Des Grieux soon learns that Manon is on her way to a convent where her father wants her locked up to protect her from her own passions. Des Grieux also discovers that Geronte has a plan to kidnap Manon and take her off to Paris. Des Grieux doesn't much like that idea. He puts his charm into action and, at least for the moment, young love prevails. Des Grieux persuades Manon to run off with him, and they even use Geronte's carriage to make their escape.

Geronte is angry when he finds out that the woman he had eyes for has absconded with his carriage, but he’s not angry for long. Manon's brother tells Geronte that his sister has a taste for pretty things. She'll soon grow tired of living in poverty and start looking for the kind of extravagance only a man like Geronte can provide.

That prediction comes true in ACT TWO, which finds Manon comfortably ensconced in Geronte's opulent palace in Paris. True to form, she grew weary of living in modest circumstances with Des Grieux. Before long she dumped him and came to Geronte looking for the good life. Now Manon is sumptuously dressed, covered in silks and jewels with every luxury at her fingertips.

Still, Manon misses the passion she shared with Des Grieux. Her brother Lescaut is sympathetic and he secretly arranges for Manon to meet with Des Grieux later that night.

Des Grieux soon appears. He and Manon promptly fall into each other's arms. When Geronte walks in on them he's not surprised, but he is furious. He says he can't believe Manon has betrayed him — especially after all the "gifts of love" that he has given her. Manon laughs in Geronte's face. "Love?" she says to the old man. "Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately?" Geronte curtly excuses himself but says they'll meet again soon.

That gives the lovers a chance to flee, but rather than leave immediately Manon stops to gather her jewels — her gifts from Geronte. She soon regrets it, as Geronte returns with the police and Manon is arrested for theft and prostitution.

Manon is hauled off to a prison near the port of Le Havre, where Act Three takes place. She's been sentenced to exile and is set to be shipped to a penal colony in Louisiana, along with a whole group of convicted prostitutes. Des Grieux and Lescaut plan to help Manon escape as she and the others are boarding the ship for transport, but it's obvious that they'll never be able to pull it off. Des Grieux begs the ship's captain to let him on board. The captain takes pity on the couple and allows Des Grieux to accompany Manon.

The journey is depicted by a popular orchestral intermezzo and when Act Four opens, Manon and Des Grieux are alone "on a vast plain on the borders of New Orleans," where the land is barren and dry. (Puccini's grasp of North American geography, it seems, was somewhat limited.)

Manon is desperately thirsty, and she's too weak to go any farther. Reluctantly, Des Grieux leaves her alone and wanders off, searching for water. Manon reflects on her life, and realizes that the only thing worthwhile has been her love for Des Grieux. He returns empty-handed. There's no water in sight. Alone together and without hope, the two say their goodbyes and Manon dies in Des Grieux's arms.

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