Giacomo Puccini's 'Manon Lescaut'

From The Washington National Opera

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Veronica Villaroel and Franco Farina

Des Grieux and Manon Lescaut, played by Franco Farina and Veronica Villarroel, find themselves in a life and death predicament, in Puccini's Manon Lescaut from the Washington National Opera. Photo by Karin Cooper hide caption

itoggle caption Photo by Karin Cooper


Veronica Villarroel..Manon Lescaut

Franco Farina ........... Des Grieux

Roberto Servile ..............Lescaut

William Parcher ............ Geronte

Robert Baker .... Dancing Master

Corey Even Rotz ......... Edmondo

Washington National Opera

Orchestra and Chorus

Placido Domingo, conductor

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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. He was an author, and 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 in the 19th century.

Auber's version appeared first, in 1856, and has all but disappeared. Massenet and Puccini came up with their Manon operas in 1884 and 1893, respectively. They were both smash hits pretty much right from the start, and have stayed in the repertory ever since.

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 figured that Manon got exactly what she deserved. After all, she did take up with two very different guys, getting just what she wanted from each of them, while refusing to "commit." They both 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, convicted, imprisoned and then exiled.

Today, 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? We'll reserve judgment — and urge you to check out the opera and decide for yourself. This week on the air, World of Opera host Lisa Simeone brings us Puccini's Manon Lescaut in a production from the Washington National Opera, starring soprano Veronica Villarroel as Manon and tenor Franco Farina as Des Grieux. The conductor is also the opera company's general director, and a pretty fair tenor in his own right — Placido Domingo.

The Story of Puccini's 'Manon Lescaut'

Veronica Villaroel as Manon Lescaut

After abandoning her true love for a wealthy, older man, Manon Lescaut, played by Veronica Villarroel, is the toast of Paris. Photo by Karin Cooper hide caption

itoggle caption Photo by Karin Cooper
Franco Farina and Veronica Villaroel as Des Grieux and Manon

Des Grieux has arranged to accompany Manon into overseas exile in Louisiana. Photo by Karin Cooper hide caption

itoggle caption Photo by Karin Cooper

BACKGROUND: The beautiful, though avaricious, Manon is a character who actually headlines two popular, but very different, operas — the one featured here, by Puccini, and Massenet's version of the same story. Puccini was acutely aware that his 1893 opera Manon Lescaut would be compared to Massenet's Manon, which appeared nine years earlier. But Puccini felt he was the one who truly understood the title character.

"Massenet feels the subject as a Frenchman, with the powder and the minuets," Puccini said. "I shall feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion."

The story had already been around for a century and had captivated quite a few artists. In it, a young woman is seduced by a life of opulence and luxury. She abandons her true love to achieve that life, but comes to regret it. In other words, she gets her comeuppance. At least that was the idea when the novel Manon Lescaut was first published in 1731. Its author was a Benedictine monk named Abbe Prevost d'Exiles, who had a pretty checkered past of his own. But, being a man, he got the benefit of a doubt.

When Puccini came along a hundred years later, he took a more sympathetic view of the fallen woman, Manon. And he searched for a librettist with a similar bent, eventually settling on journalist and playwright Luigi Illica. Before long, Puccini had his first hit.

Manon Lescaut put Puccini on the map, and made him a rich man. His great operas La Boheme, Tosca, and Madame Butterfly soon followed.

ACT 1: The action begins 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, who is still a teenager. 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 coach to make their escape.

Geronte is angry when he finds out that the woman he had eyes for has absconded with his coach, 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.

ACT 2: The second act opens in Geronte's palace in Paris. Manon is sumptuously dressed, covered in silks and jewels, with every luxury at her fingertip. As her brother had predicted, she grew weary of living in modest circumstances with Des Grieux. So she dumped him and came to Geronte looking for the good life.

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 instead of leaving immediately Manon stops to gather her jewels — her gifts from Geronte. She soon regrets it. Geronte returns with the police and Manon is arrested for theft and prostitution.

ACTS 3 & 4: Manon has been hauled off to a prison near the port of Le Havre, where Act Three takes place. Manon is to be shipped to a penal colony in Louisiana, along with a whole group of imprisoned prostitutes. Des Grieux and Manon's brother, Lescaut, plan to help her 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.

There's a popular orchestral intermezzo at this point, depicting their journey, 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 goes deeper into the desert, 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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