Des Grieux (Rolando Villazón) shares his dream with Manon (Natalie Dessay) -- from Act II of Massenet's Manon in Barcelona, 2007.
For tonight's preview we're going to revisit the young Chévalier des Grieux's "Dream," as shared with his young lover Manon Lescaut at a time when she, alas, already knows that they're as little as minutes away from everything between them coming to a crashing end. We're going to hear it tonight in a recording I was too lazy to prepare for presentation earlier. As we'll hear once again, des Grieux has no clue as to what's about to happen.
To recap: A high-spirited, ravishing, even magnetic (to men, that is) 16-year-old girl, destined by her family to be shut away in a convent, crosses paths with a dashing young aristocratic scion, and their hormones explode. They run off together and are deliriously happy -- for a while. Not long after, however, a mere couple of acts later (four at most) if it's an opera, one of them will be so destroyed that dying is more or less the easy way out, leaving the other behind, life in tatters.
It's the story of the Chévalier des Grieux and of Manon Lescaut, as first told novelistically by the Abbé Prévost, and then operatically by Jules Massenet and Giacomo Puccini. The case I've been trying to argue is that, setting Romeo and juliet aside, possibly no doomed couple has exerted as powerful a hold on the romantic imagination as these two.
SO FAR I'VE FOCUSED ON WHAT MAKES
THIS ROMANTIC PAIRING SO GRIPPING
I should warn that it's most unlikely that we're going to follow Manon and des Grieux all the way to the horrible end. It's too painful for me -- and, I think, for both our composers, who produced some excellent music, but not music that grabs me at least the same way as the music they imagined for the earlier stages of the story. But this week we're going to move into the unraveled state of the relationship, for which Massenet in particular came up with music more heart-grabbing than any of the music we've heard so far, which music includes some of the most heart-grabbing I know.
Now, back to "The Dream": When we first focused on "The Dream," we heard some pretty fine performances by tenors including Jussi Bjoerling, Léopold Simoneau, Beniamino Gigli, Giuseppe di Stefano, Roberto Alagna, and Giuseppe di Stefano. But we didn't hear the tenor we might logically have most wanted to hear: Georges Thill. As we prepare to hear des Grieux's other great Massenet solo opportunity, I finally got around to the dirty work of dubbing Thill's recordings from LP. So tonight, by way of refreshing our memory of des Grieux's dream, which is already seriously out of step with what Manon herself has told us about her passion for beautiful things and good times, we're going to hear Thill now.
Manon: Act II, Recitative and aria, des Grieux, "Instant charmant, où la crainte fait trêve" . . . "En fermant les yeux" ("Enchanting moment, where fear is dispelled" . . . "On closing my eyes")
DES GRIEUX: Enchanting moment, where fear is dispelled,
where we are just the two of us.
Listen, Manon, while walking
I just had a dream.
On closing my eyes, I see
in the distance a humble retreat,
a little house,
all white, in the depths of the woods.
In its tranquil shadows
clear and joyous streams,
in which leaves are reflected,
sing with the birds.
It's Paradise. Oh, no!
Everything there is sad and morose,
for there's one thing lacking there.
Still needed there is Manon!
Our life will be there,
if you wish it, o Manon!
Georges Thill (t), Chévalier des Grieux; orchestra, Eugène Bigot, cond. EMI, recorded 1937
IN TOMORROW'S SUNDAY CLASSICS POST
As promised, we hear des Grieux's other great aria opportunity chez Massenet -- and we'll hear just how captivating Manon can be.
THE MANON SERIES TO DATE
Preview: "We'll live in Paris, together" -- a mystery theme and a mystery duet-fragment [8/31]
The (Hi)story of the Chévalier des Grieux and of Manon [9/2]
Preview: The other operatic "Story of the Chévalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut" [9/21]
How Massenet and Puccini make Manon and des Grieux matter to us [9/23]