Love For Sale: Massenet's 'Manon'

From The Vienna State Opera

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Manon from Vienna State Opera i

Soprano Diana Damrau stars as the gold-digging title character in the Vienna State Opera's production of Massenet's Manon. Courtesy of Vienna State Opera hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Vienna State Opera
Manon from Vienna State Opera

Soprano Diana Damrau stars as the gold-digging title character in the Vienna State Opera's production of Massenet's Manon.

Courtesy of Vienna State Opera

THE HIT SINGLE

Manon is full of hit tunes, and this "Gavotte" from Act II may be the flashiest. As she sings it, Manon (soprano Diana Damrau) is the toast of Paris, and resolves to use youth and beauty to her best advantage.

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THE B SIDE

In the Act III duet "N'est-ce plus ma main," Manon reappears in Des Grieux's life just as he's about to enter the priesthood -- and passionately convinces him that he may want to reconsider a life of celibacy. In the Vienna production it's sung by Diana Damrau and tenor Ramon Vargas.

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Generally, opera is considered a serious art form. By contrast, composer Jules Massenet has been described as a lightweight — and at times, it's easy to hear why. Even his wildly popular Manon, an opera with a deadly serious story, has plenty of froth.

But we don't need to concentrate on the supposedly lofty world of opera to find astonishingly successful composers with lightweight reputations. For another, we can look closer to home, at a legendary figure of American musical theater: Cole Porter.

Porter was a true Broadway genius, a brilliant lyricist and a first-rate composer — the creator of dozens of hit songs and shows. Was Porter a "lightweight"? Sure, plenty of his best-known songs sound that way: "You're the Top" and "It's De-Lovely" don't pack much of an emotional wallop. But Porter did have a serious side. His classic song "Love for Sale" conjures up the gritty, workaday side of prostitution. The subject matter and its sophisticated, even disturbing tone are hardly the work of a lightweight songwriter.

Getting back to opera, the two-sided nature we hear in Cole Porter's familiar songs and shows can also be found in Massenet's Manon, an opera which touches on the same dramatic territory as Porter's "Love for Sale."

The opera's title character starts out as an innocent 15-year-old — a kid whose "inclinations" have prompted her parents to ship her off to a convent. At first, that seems a bit harsh, but by the time the opera is over, we might wonder. When it comes to true love, Manon is lucky right from the start.

During her journey, Manon falls for a well-meaning young man of modest means, who adores her. Before long, though, it's clear that Manon has a taste for opulence as well as true love — and she's not above cavorting with rich men she doesn't love in exchange for a luxurious lifestyle. Despite the frothy spots, Massenet's opera doesn't pull any punches, and he gave it all the complex, emotionally powerful music it needs to drive home pointedly unsavory realities.

On this edition of World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Manon in a production from the Vienna State Opera, featuring a brilliant performance by soprano Diana Damrau as Manon, with tenor Ramon Vargas as Des Grieux.

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

The Story Of 'Manon'

Lescaut, Manon and Des Grieux at the casino

Having spent most of Des Grieux's inheritance, Manon (Diana Damrau) and Des Grieux (Ramon Vargas) try their luck at a casino. Hanon's cousin Lescaut (Markus Eiche) joins them. Courtesy of the Vienna State Opera hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the Vienna State Opera

WHO'S WHO

Diana Damrau ................................ Manon
Ramon Vargas ....................... Des Grieux
Markus Eiche ............................... Lescaut
Dan Paul Dumitrescu .... Count Des Grieux
Alexander Kaimbacher ................... Guillot
Clemens Unterreinder ................. Brétigny
Simina Ivan ............................... Poussette
Sophie Marilley.............................. Javotte
Zoryana Kushpler ....................... Rosette

Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Betrand de Billy, conductor

Des Grieux's and Manon's arrest

Des Grieux is accused of cheating in a game against Guillot, and he and Manon are arrested. Courtesy of the Vienna State Opera hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the Vienna State Opera

ACT ONE begins in the courtyard of an inn. Two wealthy men, Guillot and Brétigny, are at the table with their three female companions: Rosette, Javotte and Poussette. They're all complaining loudly about the service, and generally behaving like obnoxious, arrogant rich folks — which is what they are.

Before long, a coach arrives. Townspeople assemble to gawk at the travelers, and a young man named Lescaut is there to greet his 15-year-old cousin, Manon. She's on her way to a convent, where she was sent by her parents, who fear that their daughter has become "overly fond of pleasure." The crowd is stunned by her beauty.

Lescaut greets her, and when he goes to retrieve her baggage, Guillot sees Manon and immediately has lust on his mind. He makes an overt pass at her, even offering her money for her favors. She turns him down — but before he leaves, Guillot ostentatiously tells her that his coach and driver will stand by to take her anywhere she wants.

Alone, Manon looks at all the wealth around her, and she's less than thrilled that she'll be locked away from these pleasures in the convent. By this point, Massenet has provided musical themes representing both Manon's beauty and her innocence. As the drama progresses, it has everything to do with her beauty, but less and less to do with innocence.

Then, the moment of truth. The young man Des Grieux is waiting for his father's coach to take him home. But when he catches sight of Manon, he's immediately infatuated. She tells him her family is packing her off to a convent. He decides Manon is just the kind of girl he's been looking for, and offers her another choice. She can go with him to Paris. This sounds just fine to Manon, and she knows just how to get there: Guillot's coach and driver are still waiting, so Manon and Des Grieux hop in and head for Paris.

Some time passes, and ACT TWO takes place in the modest Paris apartment where the two have taken up housekeeping. Des Grieux knows that his father is upset by this arrangement. So he's writing Dad a letter about the splendid young woman who has come into his life, and how happy she's made him. He says he intends to marry her. Manon is touched by the letter, but she's not so sure she wants to get married. She's even less sure she wants to spend the rest of her life in shabby apartments.

The maid announces the arrival of two guests. One is Manon's cousin, Lescaut; the other is a soldier. Manon realizes this soldier is her wealthy admirer Bretigny, in disguise. While Lescaut and Des Grieux argue about the Lescaut family honor, Bretigny tells Manon that Des Grieux's father has arranged an intervention. His son is to be abducted that very night. Bretigny also tells her that with Des Grieux out of the picture, he can offer her a life of wealth and pleasure.

When Bretigny and Lescaut leave, Des Grieux goes to mail his letter. Manon sings a farewell to the apartment they've shared. Shortly after Des Grieux returns, there's a knock at the door. Manon knows it's the abductors. She unconvincingly tells her lover not to answer the knocks, but gives him no reason. So he goes to the door, and is quickly dragged away.

The first scene of ACT THREE takes place in a crowded park in Paris, on a Sunday afternoon. Manon's cousin Lescaut is there, spending money hand over fist. Manon soon arrives, with Bretigny. She's obviously enjoying his wealth, if not his company. Manon is dressed to kill and fishing for compliments at every turn — which makes Bretigny extremely jealous. He's willing to do just about anything to keep her, and he bristles when Guillot remarks that Bretigny might soon lose Manon to someone who's willing to spend his money on her a little more freely.

Manon is obviously pleased with her current, opulent circumstances, but she still has feelings for Des Grieux. So when she sees Bretigny talking to Des Grieux's father, a Count, she eavesdrops. The Count says that his son has decided to become a priest. He'll be giving his first sermon late that very day, at St. Sulpice.

Manon would like to think that Des Grieux is still in love with her, and wants her back. So she approaches the Count, thinking he has no idea who she is. She says she's heard that his son decided on the priesthood only after having his heart broken, and she wonders out loud if he still thinks of the woman who broke it. The Count knows exactly who Manon is, and says no — his son has gotten over "that woman" completely. Unhappy that Des Grieux might actually have forgotten her, Manon orders her coachman to take her to St. Sulpice, where the next scene takes place.

Outside the church, after Des Grieux finishes his sermon, his father congratulates him. The Count says that because the young man is now taking life seriously, his inheritance will be made available. The Count leaves for home, and Des Grieux goes inside.

Manon then arrives, and asks to see Des Grieux. While she waits, she knows she's about to seduce a man who's on the verge of priesthood. She prays for forgiveness, and seems to long for a more pious life. But she also seems to know that piety will never be her strong suit. When Des Grieux appears, he denounces her for infidelity. She admits she's been faithless, but begs him to forgive her. To one of the opera's most famous melodies, Manon brings up memories of their passionate past, and Des Grieux is unable to resist her.

In ACT FOUR, Manon and Des Grieux are back together, living on his inheritance — and they've been living in style. But now the money is almost gone and they've come to a casino, where Manon thinks they might solve their cash-flow problems. Manon's cousin Lescaut is also there, along with Guillot, who is still more than willing to spend his money on Manon.

Guillot challenges Des Grieux to a game. Des Grieux is reluctant, but Manon urges him on. She reminds him that "their" money has almost run out. She also makes it clear that when the money is gone, she will be, too. So the game goes on. Des Grieux wins, and wins again, and keeps winning until Guillot accuses him of cheating. Des Grieux denies the charge, but Guillot leaves and returns with the police. He demands that the cheater and his accomplice, Manon, both be arrested.

Des Grieux's father also shows up, but does nothing to stop the arrest. He figures that later on, he can get his son off the hook — but there will be nobody to stand up for Manon, and she'll finally be out of the picture. Manon and Des Grieux are both hauled away as the act ends.

ACT FIVE takes place on the road to the port city of Le Havre. Des Grieux has been released, and he's at the roadside waiting for Manon, along with her cousin Lescaut. Manon was convicted of prostitution, and she's being taken to Le Havre to be deported.

When soldiers escorting Manon appear on the road, Lescaut bribes their commander, who leaves him alone with his cousin. In turn, Lescaut leaves her with Des Grieux, and the lovers are together one last time. Manon's spirit is broken, and she's gravely ill. She begs for Des Grieux's forgiveness, and as they're both remembering happier times, she dies in his arms.

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