Love Stinks: Massenet, Poulenc Double Bill

From Glimmerglass Opera

who's who?

Portrait of Manon

Theodore Baerg ......... Des Grieux

Kristine Winkler .......... Aurore

Colin Ainsworth .......... Jean

Bruce Reed ............... Tiburge

Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra

Andrew Bisantz, conductor

La Voix Humaine

Amy Burton .................... Elle

Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra

Stewart Robinson, conductor

Amy Burton in Poulenc's "La Voix Humaine."

As the tormented character Elle in Poulenc's La Voix Humanie, Amy Burton tries to salvage a relationship in one last phone call. George Mott / Glimmerglass Opera hide caption

itoggle caption George Mott / Glimmerglass Opera
Colin Ainsworth and Kristine Winkler in Massenet's "Le Portrait de Manon." i i

Love lost and won: Jean (Colin Ainsworth) and Aurore (Kristine Winkler) are, at first, denied their engagement in Glimmerglass Opera's production of Portrait of Manon by Jules Massenet. George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera hide caption

itoggle caption George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera
Colin Ainsworth and Kristine Winkler in Massenet's "Le Portrait de Manon."

Love lost and won: Jean (Colin Ainsworth) and Aurore (Kristine Winkler) are, at first, denied their engagement in Glimmerglass Opera's production of Portrait of Manon by Jules Massenet.

George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera

Even the most idealistic lovers often have to overcome a few hurdles — and sometimes, they don't succeed. From the idyllic surroundings of Glimmerglass Opera, in upstate New York (a perfect place for love to bloom), comes a pair of one-act operas about love gone wrong.

Jules Massenet's opera Manon was such a hit, neither he nor his audiences could get it out of their heads. So it's not surprising that, years later, Massenet returned to the story of the fallen woman to produce a sequel — the one-act Portrait of Manon.

The opera is based on a novel by the 18th century French author known as the Abbé Prévost. His story set many a reader's imagination on fire. It was the tale of a woman named Manon Lescaut. But the full title of Prévost's novel was The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut. In the book, Des Grieux is the central character, not Manon. She appears as a memory, as Des Grieux spins the story of his love for her and its tragic ending. Five different composers based operas on the novel, including, most famously, Massenet and Puccini. But both turned the original tale around, and made Manon the main character. So perhaps it was fitting that 10 years after his successful opera, Massenet picked up the story again and wrote a one-act sequel — this time focusing on an older and wiser Des Grieux. He gets swept up into the same emotions all over again. It seems he just can't let go.

Characters who can't let go of love are common in opera. Glimmerglass Opera has joined together a pair of problematic love affairs for a provocative double bill.

Following Massenet's Manon sequel, a nameless woman tries desperately to save her affair from a painful end in Francis Poulenc's one-act La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice).

Based on a 1932 play by Poulenc's friend Jean Cocteau, La Voix Humaine is a stark depiction of a woman overcome by desperation. We watch her crumble right before our eyes, in a 45-minute telephone conversation with her lover. Ex-lover, actually. And there's the source of the problem: She's been dumped.

One telephone, one voice, one singer on stage: in this case, Amy Burton, in a role that's a true tour de force.

In this edition of World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents two short operas about love gone bad by two French composers known for their exquisite writing for the human voice.

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

The Stories Of The Operas

Amy Burton as Elle, in Poulenc's "The Human Voice."

Amy Burton, as Elle in La Voix Humaine, is filled with regret over a love gone sour. George Mott / Glimmerglass Opera hide caption

itoggle caption George Mott / Glimmerglass Opera
Kristine Winkler and Colin Ainsworth in Massenet's "Portrait of Manon."

As Aurore and Jean in Massenet's Portrait of Manon, Kristine Winkler and Colin Ainsworth must make a plan to keep their love alive. George Mott / Glimmerglass Opera hide caption

itoggle caption George Mott / Glimmerglass Opera

PORTRAIT OF MANON: Jules Massenet used several musical motifs from his previous opera Manon in this new work, and they can be heard right from the prelude. As the action begins, we meet the Chevalier Des Grieux, who's now 50. It's been 20 years since Manon's death.

He is sitting alone in the parlor of a chateau; the house had been given to him in his father's will. Des Grieux lives a simple life, but a comfortable one. He has taken charge of the education of his 18-year-old nephew, Jean. Sadly, Des Grieux reminisces about his love affair with Manon and how badly it all ended.. He's still obsessed with her and is reminded of her daily, even keeping a tiny portrait of Manon hidden in his desk.

When Des Grieux learns that Jean is in love with Aurore, a 16-year-old country girl and the stepdaughter of an old friend, he forbids the match. The girl, he explains to his nephew, has no money or position. She's an orphan, a nobody. Jean would end up destroying himself, Des Grieux says, just as he himself was destroyed when he was young by exactly the same sort of love.

One can imagine how this goes over with Jean. And with Aurore. When Jean tells her that Des Grieux has forbidden the marriage, the two briefly consider suicide. Then, caught up in passion, they playfully chase each other around the room and accidentally unlock the compartment of the desk where Des Grieux keeps the portrait of Manon.

Tiburge, Aurore's stepfather, arrives just in time to see the portrait. He sympathizes with the young couple and comes up with a plan. He tells Aurore to dress up like Manon in the portrait.

That evening, she walks into the room where Des Grieux is sitting. She stands in a beam of moonlight coming through the window, reminding Des Grieux of the moment when he first saw Manon so many years ago. But there's something more — an eerie resemblance. Finally, Tiburge reveals his stepdaughter's true identity — she is Manon's niece, an orphan he adopted long ago. Des Grieux relents, giving the young couple his blessing, and the opera ends.

LA VOIX HUMAINE: The single character in Poulenc's one-act opera is a young woman who is never named. Poulenc and Jean Cocteau, the author of the text, called her simply, "Elle."

We hear only her end of a telephone conversation with her former lover. Cries of desperation are punctuated with soft recollections of their life together.

There's also an element of black humor in this extended monologue, as Elle ends up talking at times to phone operators, who interrupt her conversation. The opera was written in 1958, at a time when party lines existed, so Elle shares her phone line with somebody else. That's why she sometimes needs the assistance of operators. So the sadness of lost love is often interrupted by the staccato of rings and re-dialings. Plus, her lover periodically hangs up on her in anger — or exhaustion — prompting one or the other ex-lover to call back.

Though Elle insists she's coping well, we soon learn that she has already tried suicide. All in all, it's not a pretty picture. Finally, with the connection severed one last time, Elle wraps the telephone cord around her neck and curls up in bed, murmuring "Je t'aime" into the receiver.

Poulenc was well acquainted with this kind of desperation and said this opera was more or less autobiographical. He struggled with lifelong anxiety, drug abuse and thoughts of suicide. He called La Voix Humaine "a musical confession."

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