Sunday, September 23, 2012

How Massenet and Puccini make Manon and des Grieux matter to us

MANON [sad and resigned]: Come now, Manon, no more chimeras,
where your mind goes while dreaming!
Leave these ephemeral desires
at the door of your convent!
Come now, Manon, no more desires, no more chimeras!

Beverly Sills (s), Manon Lescaut; New Philharmonia Orchestra, Julius Rudel, cond. ABC-DG, recorded July 1970

by Ken

This is the 16-year-old Manon of Massenet's Act I, arrived in Amiens by coach where she has been met -- and promptly abandoned -- by her cousin Lescaut for dumping off to a convent. (We're going to hear a fuller version of this scene later.)

A few weeks ago I began poking around The Story of the Chévalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut (the title of the novel by the Abbé Prévost which formed the basis for all the subsequent adaptations) as it was shaped by Jules Massenet for his operatic Manon. Then in Friday's preview we switched over to Puccini's later rendering, which he distinguished by calling it Manon Lescaut.

The last thing I'm interested in is seeing which opera is "better." They seem to me wonderfully complementary, a classic case of two great storytellers who tell the same story, which comes out somewhat different because of their different sensibilities, emphases, and audiences. And I think looking at both operas helps us focus on what makes the story of these doomed lovers so enduringly fascinating.

Let's start by going back to the beginnings of both operas. We already heard the brief Prelude to Massenet's opera, but let's hear it again, first in a performance we already heard, then in one we didn't.

MASSENET: Manon: Prelude

New Philharmonia Orchestra, Julius Rudel, cond. ABC-DG, recorded July 1970

Orchestra of the Capitole de Toulouse, Michel Plasson, cond. EMI, recorded July 1982

Massenet's curtain rises on a "genre" scene at the inn in Amiens where Manon and des Grieux are going to meet. Puccini begins his opera with a similar sort of scene, focused on the male students at the inn flirting with the young ladies.


At the inn in Amiens, Lescaut (Trond Halstein Moe) meets his just-arrived sister Manon (Liana Aleksanyan) in the opening scene of Puccini's Manon Lescaut at Norwegian Opera, 2005.

We've actually heard the opening scene of Manon Lescaut, in the December 2009 post "Is this any way to start an opera? (Puccini thought so)," in which we heard the compulsively grabbing openings of all of Puccini's operas from Manon Lescaut through Turandot except the one-acts Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica. At that time we heard the Levine-Decca recording (with Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti), though I noted that if I had the Serafin-EMI (with Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano). Well, now I do, so we're going to hear that as well.

PUCCINI: Manon Lescaut: Act I opening, Edmondo, "Ave, sera gentile" . . . des Grieux, "L'amor! L'amor!" . . . "Tra voi belle, brune e bionde"
Amiens: A spacious square near the Paris Gate.

There is an inn with a porch, under which are tables for customers. An outside staircase leads to the first floor of the inn; an avenue leads off to the right. Students, villagers, and soldiers either stroll about the square or stand together talking; there are customers at some of the tables, drinking or playing cards.
EDMONDO is talking with fellow students.

EDMONDO: Hail, beautiful evening, which descends
with your wonderful train of zephyrs and stars;
hail, dear to poetes and to lovers --
STUDENTS [with a burst of laughter]: And to robbers and drunkards!
We have cut your madrigal short!
EDMONDO: And I thank you.
For up the avenue in a joyous throng
come our fresh, laughing, and pretty
young working girls.
STUDENTS: How animated the scene is growing.
EDMONDO: I'm preparing a madrigal,
artful, bold, and gay,
In a joyous throng they come,
our young working girls --
STUDENTS: Frail, laughing, and pretty
EDMONDO: I'm preparing a madrigal, artful and gay,
and may my muse be inspired by chivalry!
[To some of the girls who come into the square]
Youth is our name,
hope is our goddess,
and we dare the boldest deed
to win sweet favor from you.
STUDENTS: Youth is our name!
EDMONDO and STUDENTS: Hope is our goddess,
and we dare the boldest deed
to win sweet favor from you.
Wondrous rapture!
Now, you laughing young ones,
full of love, yield your hearts.
GIRLS: A wave of perfume floats through the air,
home the swallow files
and the sun dies.
STUDENTS: Yield your lips, yield your hearts,
to our youtful ardor.
GIRLS [simultaneously]: This is the hour of dreams
when hope struggles with sadness.
[DES GRIEUX enters, dressed as a student.]
STUDENTS: How is des Grieux?
EDMONDO [to DES GRIEUX]: Come and join us, friend.
Laugh and surrender yourself to gallant adventure.
[DES GRIEUX shows no inclination to join the students.]
What, no answer? Why?
Perhaps for some inaccessible lady
acute love consumes you?
DES GRIEUX: Love? Love?
That tragedy, or rather farce,
I'm unfamiliar with.
[Some of the students talk with DES GRIEUX and EDMONDO; others court the girls who are strolling about the square.]
Some happy and mysterious conquests you are concealing.
DES GRIEUX : Friends, you do me too much honor.
EDMONDO and STUDENTS: By Bacchus we guessed it, friend,
you're troubled by a rebuff.
DES GRIEUX: No, not yet, but if it pleases you,
I will appease your curiosity -- and right away!
[He approaches some of the girls.]
Among you beauties, brunette and blond,
is there hiding a girl graceful and pretty,
with rosy lips, who's waiting for me?
Is it you, blond star? Tell me!
Show me my destiny
and the divinely ardent face
that I should fall in love with,
that I should gaze upon and love eternally!
[EDMONDO and the other students laugh.]
Among you beauties, brunette and blond, &c.
[The girls, seeing that he is joking, turn from him angrily. The students laugh.
EDMONDO and STUDENTS: Bravo! Bravo!

Ramón Vargas (t), Edmondo; Luciano Pavarotti (t), des Grieux; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, James Levine, cond. Decca, recorded August 1992

Dino Formichini (t), Edmondo; Giuseppe di Stefano (t), Chévalier des Grieux; et al.; Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Tullio Serafin, cond. EMI, recorded July 1957

Note that in Puccini it's des Grieux we meet first; in Massenet, it's Manon. Friday night we heard Puccini's des Grieux making a first overture to Manon, begging her to tell him his name, a musical episode that was almost immediately repurposed into his aria "Donna non vidi mai." I thought now we would go back a bit to Manon's entrance, then continue through "Donna non vidi mai."

PUCCINI: Manon Lescaut: Act I from Manon's entrance
Amiens: A Spacious Square Near the Paris Gate.

There is an inn with a porch, under which are tables for customers. An outside staircase leads to the first floor of the inn; an avenue leads off to the right.

Students and villagers crowd around to see the new arrivals from the coach.
LESCAUT steps down first, then GERONTE, who assists MANON to alight. Servants run from the inn to attend to the passengers and to take charge of the luggage.

THE CROWD: They're getting down, let's see!
Elegant travelers -- gallants.
EDMONDO and STUDENTS [admiring MANON]: Who wouldn't give that beautiful young lady
a tender salute of welcome?
LESCAUT: Hey! Innkeeper!
[To GERONTE]: You are a model of politeness.
[Calling] Hey! Innkeeper!
INNKEEPER [running up]: Here I am!
DES GRIEUX [gazing at MANON]: My God, how beautiful she is!
GERONTE [to the INNKEEPER]: For this night, friend, I will stay here.
[To LESCAUT] Excuse me!
Innkeeper, please look after my luggage.
INNKEEPER: Very good, sir.
[He gives an order to the servants., who then begin to unload the baggage, and turns to GERONTE and LESCAUT.]
Gentlemen, kindly step this way.
[He goes up the staircase, followed by GERONTE and by LESCAUT, who has signaled MANON to wait for him. MANON sits down. The crowd disperses; some of the students sit down to drink and gamble. EDMONDO stands apart and watches as DES GRIEUX approaches MANON.]
DES GRIEUX: Gentle lady, accept my prayer:
let those sweet lips tell me your name.
MANON [simply and modestly as she rises: Manon Lescaut is my name.
DES GRIEUX: Forgive my words,
but I am drawn to you
by some mysterious fascination.
MANON: Tomorrow at dawn I leave.
A convent awaits me.
DES GRIEUX: And in you
spring is revealed blossoming on your cheek!
O lovely one, what fate makes war upon you?
MANON: My fate is decided:
the will of my father.
DES GRIEUX: Oh, how beautiful you are!
Ah, no! It is no sterile convent that calls you!
No! Another star shines on your destiny!
MANON: My star is setting!
DES GRIEUX: We cannot speak now.
Return here soon,
and, conspiring against fate,
we shall conquer.
MANON: Your words show so much pity!
I should like to remember you!
What is your name?
DES GRIEUX: I am Renato des Grieux.
LESCAUT [from the inn]: Manon!
MANON: I must leave you.
[Turning toward the inn] I'm coming!
[To DES GRIEUX] My brother calls me.
DES GRIEUX: You'll return here?
MANON: No, I cannot! Leave me, please!
DES GRIEUX: O lovely one, I beg you!
MANON: You have conquered me.
When it is dark . . .
[She breaks off. Seeing LESCAUT come out onto the balcony of the inn, she quickly joins him. DES GRIEUX folllows her with his glance.]
DES GRIEUX: Never have I beheld a woman like this!
To tell her "I love you"
awakened my spirit to new life.
"Manon Lescaut is my name."
How those fragrant words
wander in my spirit
and caress my quivering heart.
O gentle murmur, ah! may it never cease!
"Manon Lescaut is my name."
Gentle murmur, ah! may it never cease!

Maria Callas (s), Manon Lescaut; Giuseppe di Stefano (t), Chévalier des Grieux; et al.; Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Tullio Serafin, cond. EMI, recorded July 1957

Renata Tebaldi (s), Manon Lescaut; Richard Tucker (t), Chévalier des Grieux; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Fausto Cleva, cond. Live performance, Jan. 17, 1959

Friday night we heard the actual meeting of Manon and des Grieux as rendered by Puccini. I thought now we'd hear the corresponding scene in Massenet, which culminates in the giddy, irresistible "We'll live in Paris, together" duet chunk we heard in the first preview post.

We pick up here shortly after Manon's arrival by coach, when she was met by her military cousin Lescaut, to whom she explained, in the aria we heard in the September 2 post, that she was all dazed, all numb. Her cousin promptly gave her the brush-off so he could go join a card game with some fellow guardsmen, which he used as an excuse, by way of instructing her not to move, to harangue her with some pompous and idiotic instruction on maidenly decorum under the guise of "counsels all filled with wisdom." (If we eventually get to looking at the question I spotlighted in the earlier Manon post, why the deliriously joyful coming together of Manon and des Grieux not only comes apart but comes apart with such disastrous results, one subheading might be: "The Effect of Lescaut and des Grieux Family Values.")

MASSENET: Manon: Act I, Meeting of Manon and des Grieux
MANON: Let's stay here, since I have to.
Let's wait . . . without thinking! Let's avoid these follies,
these projects that put my reason in default.
Let's dream no more!
[Plunged in her reflections, she lands her eyes on the pavilion in which the actresses Poussette, Javotte, and Rosette are.]
How pretty those women are!
The youngest was wearing a necklace of gold beads.
Ah! how that rich apparel
and that stylish jewelry
made them even more beautiful.
Come now, Manon, no more chimeras,
where your mind goes while dreaming!
Leave these ephemeral desires
at the door of your convent!
Come now, Manon, no more desires, no more chimeras!
And yet!...
When I let myself be carried away with feelings of delight,
everything in those ladies seems attractive!
Ah! How very marvellous it must be
to enjoy oneself for a whole lifetime!
Come now, Manon,no more wild desires, etc.
[She sees DES GRIEUX.]
Someone's here! Quick, back to my stone bench!
[She goes back to the spot where LESCAUT had left her.]
DES GRIEUX [without seeing Manon]: I noted the time of departure,
I was hesitating . . . what a strange thing!
After all, tomorrow evening at the latest
I'll embrace my father!
My father!
Yes, I see him smiling,
and my heart is not playing me false!
I see him, he calls to me and I hold out my arms to him!
[Unknowingly, DES GRIEUX has turned towards MANON. He stares at her astonished and then, as though seeing a vision, in ecstasy.]
Good Heavens! Is this a dream?
Is this madness?
Where does this feeling come from?
One might say that my life is ending . . . or just beginning!
It seems as if an iron hand
were leading me onto anther path,
and it spite of myself it draws me straight to her!
Involuntarily, Des Grieux has approached Manon, step by step.
[To MANON]Mademoiselle!
MANON: Yes, what?
DES GRIEUX: Forgive me! I do not know . . .
I am obeying, I'm no longer my own master.
I am seeing you, surely, for the very first time,
yet my heart feels as if you were
a long-lost acquaintance!
And I know your name . . .
MANON: My name is Manon.
MANON [aside]: How gentle his expression is!
And what a delight it is to listen to him!
DES GRIEUX: These words of a madman, please excuse them!
MANON: Why condemn them?
They enchant my heart and delight my ears!
I should like to know
similar words so as to repeat them to you!
DES GRIEUX: Enchantress!
With an overpowering spell!
Manon! You are the mistress of my heart!
MANON: Charming words!
MANON: The intoxicating fever,
the intoxicating fever of happiness!
DES GRIEUX: You are mistress,
you are mistress of my heart!
[After a long silence Ah, speak to me!
MANON: I am only a poor girl.
I am not bad,
but often my family accuses me
of liking pleasure too much.
Now I'm being put into a convent.
And there you have the story of Manon Lescaut!
DES GRIEUX: No, I will not believe in this cruelty!
That so many ravishing charms
should be vowed forever to a living tomb.
MANON: But that, alas, is the will of heaven,
and I am its servant!
For so great an unhappiness cannot be avoided.
Your freedom shall not be taken from you!
MANON: But how?
DES GRIEUX: You can put your trust in the
Chévalier des Grieux!
MANON: I will owe you more than life itself!
DES GRIEUX: Ah, Manon, you shall not leave,
even should I have to go to the ends of the earth
seeking an unknown, dark sanctuary,
to which I would carry you in my arms.
MANON: My life and soul belong to you!
To you, my life is yours forever!
DES GRIEUX: Enchantress! Manon!
You are the mistress of my heart!
[At this moment the postilion, told earlier by GUILLOT to await MANON's orders, appears in the background.
MANON: Just by chance, perhaps we have a better way: a coach,
a nobleman's post-chaise . . .
He was flirting with Manon . . .
Take revenge!
DES GRIEUX: But how?
MANON: The two of us, let's take it!
DES GRIEUX [to the postilion, who goes off]: Fine, let's be off!
MANON [troubled]: You mean, leave together?
DES GRIEUX: Yes, Manon!
Heaven is joining us together!
We'll live in Paris . . .
MANON: Together!
DES GRIEUX: . . . together, and our loving hearts . . .
MANON: In Paris!
DES GRIEUX: . . . bound to one another . . .
MANON: In Paris!
DES GRIEUX: . . . for ever reunited . . .
MANON [together]: We'll have only blessed days!
DES GRIEUX [together]: . . . there we'll live only blessed days!
TOGETHER: In Paris! In Paris, together!
We'll live in Paris! Together!
DES GRIEUX [approaching MANON tenderly; soulfully]: And my name will become yours!
[then coming back to himself; half-spoken] Ah, pardon!
MANON: In my eyes you must see well
that I am not angry with you.
And yet, it's wrong!
DES GRIEUX: Come! We'll live in Paris . . .
MANON: Together! &c.

Teresa Zylis-Gara (s), Manon Lescaut; Alfredo Kraus (t), Chévalier des Grieux; Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, Jean Fournet, cond. Live performance, Sept. 29, 1973

Beverly Sills (s), Manon Lescaut; Nicolai Gedda (t), Chévalier des Grieux; New Philharmonia Orchestra, Julius Rudel, cond. ABC/EMI/DG, recorded July 1970

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