Manon Lescaut (Puccini)

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Manon Lescaut is an opera in four acts by Giacomo Puccini. The story is based on the 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost.

The libretto is in Italian, and was cobbled together by five librettists whom Puccini employed: Ruggero Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Giuseppe Giacosa, Domenico Oliva and Luigi Illica. The publisher, Giulio Ricordi, and the composer himself also contributed to the libretto. So confused was the authorship of the libretto that no one was credited on the title page of the original score. However, it was Illica and Giacosa who completed the libretto and went on to contribute the libretti to Puccini's next three – and most successful – works, La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly.[1]

Puccini took some musical elements in Manon Lescaut from earlier works he had written. For example, the madrigal Sulla vetta tu del monte from Act II echoes the Agnus Dei from his 1880 Messa a quattro voci. Other elements of Manon Lescaut come from his compositions for strings: the quartet Crisantemi (January 1890), three Menuets (probably 1884)[2] and a Scherzo (1883?). The love theme comes from the aria Mentia l'avviso (1883).

Performance history[edit]

Postcard commemorating the 1 February 1893 premiere.

Puccini's publisher, Ricordi, had been against any project based on Prévost's story because Jules Massenet had already made it into a successful opera, Manon, in 1884. While Puccini and Ricordi may not have known it, the French composer Daniel Auber had also already written an opera on the same subject with the title Manon Lescaut, in 1856.

Despite all the warnings, Puccini proceeded. "Manon is a heroine I believe in and therefore she cannot fail to win the hearts of the public. Why shouldn’t there be two operas about Manon? A woman like Manon can have more than one lover." He added, "Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion."[3][4]

The first performance of Manon Lescaut took place in the Teatro Regio in Turin on 1 February 1893; it was Puccini's third opera and his first great success. The opera was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on 18 January 1907 in the presence of the composer with Lina Cavalieri in the title role, Enrico Caruso as Des Grieux, Antonio Scotti as Lescaut, and Arturo Vigna conducting.

Roles[edit]

Manon's costume for Act II designed by Adolf Hohenstein for the world premiere.
Role Voice type Premiere Cast, 1 February 1893
(Conductor: Alessandro Pomè)
Manon Lescaut soprano Cesira Ferrani
Lescaut, her brother, a sergeant baritone Achille Moro
Chevalier des Grieux tenor Giuseppe Cremonini
Geronte de Ravoir, Treasurer General bass Alessandro Polonini
Edmondo, a student tenor Roberto Ramini
Innkeeper bass Augusto Castagnola
Singer mezzo-soprano Elvira Ceresoli
Dancing Master tenor Roberto Ramini
Lamplighter tenor Roberto Ramini
Sergeant of the Royal Archers bass Ferdin Cattadori
Naval Captain bass
Hairdresser silent Augusto Ghinghini
Singers, old beaux and abbés, girls, townsfolk, students, courtesans, archers, sailors

Synopsis[edit]

Time: The second half of the eighteenth century.
Places: Amiens, Paris, Le Havre, New Orleans.

Act 1[edit]

A public square near the Paris Gate

From Act I. Sung by Enrico Caruso in 1913.

Problems playing this file? See media help.

It is evening, and a crowd of male students and girls are strolling about a square known for drinking and gaming. Edmondo sings a song of youthful pleasure (Edmondo, chorus: Ave, sera gentile).

Des Grieux enters, but is melancholic and does not join the other students (Des Grieux, Edmondo, chorus: L’amor! L’amor!). They joke with him (Des Grieux, Edmondo, chorus: Tra voi, belle, brune e bionde) ; (Edmondo, chorus: Ma, bravo!).

The carriage from Arras arrives. Manon, Lescaut, and an elderly treasurer-general, Geronte de Ravoir, descend from the coach. At the first sight of Manon, Des Grieux falls in love with her (Chorus, Edmondo, Lescaut, Des Grieux, Geronte: Discendono, vediam); (Des Grieux, Manon, Lescaut: Cortese damigella).

Des Grieux overhears their conversation: Manon is on her way to a convent, following the instructions of her father. Des Grieux approaches her and begs her to meet him later; she reluctantly agrees. The students laugh, pointing at the pair. After Manon leaves, Des Grieux sings of his feelings for her (Des Grieux: Donna non vidi mai).

Lescaut returns with Geronte, who also is captivated by Manon, saying she would only be wasted in a convent. While Lescaut is playing cards with a group of students, Geronte arranges to abduct Manon and take her to Paris (Edmondo, chorus, Geronte, Lescaut: La tua ventura ci rassicura); (Edmondo, Des Grieux: Cavaliere, te la fanno!). Edmondo overhears the plan and informs Des Grieux. He advises him to accompany Manon in the carriage arranged by Geronte (Des Grieux, Manon: Vedete? Io son fedele alla parola mia). Des Grieux declares his love to Manon and persuades her to go to Paris with him. They leave together. Geronte and Lescaut arrive on the scene as they disappear, and Lescaut proposes that they follow the carriage to Paris. (Geronte, Edmondo, Lescaut, chorus: Di sedur la sorellina e il momento!)

Act 2[edit]

A room in Geronte's house in Paris

Set design for Act II by Ugo Gheduzzi for the world premiere performance.
Chevalier des Grieux's costume for Act II, designed by Adolf Hohenstein for the world premiere.

(Puccini omits the part of the novel in which Manon and Des Grieux live together for a while, then Manon leaves Des Grieux because his money runs out.)

The act begins with Manon as Geronte's mistress. Manon and her hairdresser are in the room when Lescaut enters (Manon, Lescaut: Dispettosetto questo riccio!); (Lescaut: Sei splendida e lucente!). She tells him that Geronte is too old and wicked; he bores her. Manon is sad, and her thoughts turn to Des Grieux (Manon: In quelle trine morbide); (Lescaut, Manon: Poiché tu vuoi saper).

Musicians arranged by Geronte enter to amuse her (Madrigal: Sulla vetta tu del monte); (Manon, Lescaut: Paga costor). Geronte brings a dancing master; they dance a minuet, then she sings a gavotte (Dancing master, Geronte, Manon, chorus: Vi prego, signorina [minuet]); (Manon, Geronte, chorus: L’ora, o Tirsi, è vaga e bella). After dancing, Geronte and the musicians leave the house.

Lescaut is upset knowing that his sister is not happy living with Geronte, and he goes to find Des Grieux. Des Grieux appears in Geronte’s house (Manon, Des Grieux: Oh, sarò la più bella! – This love's own magic spell). As they renew their vows of love, Geronte returns unexpectedly. He salutes them ironically, reminding Manon of his many favors to her. She replies that she cannot love him (Geronte, Des Grieux, Manon: Affè, madamigella).

Bowing low, he leaves them. The lovers rejoice in their freedom (Manon, Des Grieux: Ah! Ah! Liberi!). Lescaut urges them to leave the house at once, but Manon hesitates at the thought of leaving her jewels and pretty frocks. Again, Lescaut enters in breathless haste, making signs that they must depart immediately. Manon snatches up her jewels, and they go to the door. It is locked by Geronte's order. Soldiers appear to arrest Manon, who, in trying to escape, drops the jewels at Geronte's feet. She is dragged off, and Des Grieux is not permitted to follow her (Des Grieux, Manon, Lescaut, sergeant, Geronte: Lescaut! – Tu qui?).

(Intermezzo: The journey to Le Havre.)

After trying everything to release Manon from the prison but to no avail, Des Grieux goes to Le Havre.

Act 3[edit]

A square near the harbor in Le Havre

Set design for Act III by Ugo Gheduzzi for the world premiere performance.

It is dawn. Manon is in prison with other courtesans (Des Grieux, Lescaut, Manon: Ansia eterna, crudel). Lescaut has bribed a prison guard to let Des Grieux speak with Manon. By talking to her through the bars, they learn that she is to be deported to Louisiana. A lamplighter passes, singing a song while he extinguishes the lights (Lamplighter, Des Grieux, Manon: E Kate ripose al re); (Des Grieux, Manon: Manon, disperato è il mio prego).

They attempt a rescue, but in vain. The guard appears, escorting a group of women, who are going on the same ship as Manon. She walks among them, pale and sad. The crowd makes brutal comments during the roll call of the courtesans (Chorus, Lescaut, Des Grieux, Manon: All'armi! All'armi!) but Lescaut inspires pity for Manon (Sergeant, chorus, Lescaut, Manon, Des Grieux: Rosetta! – Eh, che aria!)

Des Grieux, in despair at the idea of being separated from Manon forever, goes to Manon's side. He tries to seize her but is roughly pushed away by the sergeant. However, the captain of the ship sees his intense grief (Des Grieux: Pazzo son!) and allows him to board the ship.

Act 4[edit]

A vast plain near the outskirts of the New Orleans territory

The act begins with the lovers making their way across the desert hoping to find protection in a British settlement. Wandering in the desert without any water, the ailing Manon is exhausted. She falls and cannot go any farther (Des Grieux, Manon: Tutta su me ti posa) ; (Des Grieux: Vedi, son io che piango) ; (Manon, Des Grieux: Sei tu che piangi).

Des Grieux is alarmed by Manon's appearance and goes to look for water. While he is gone, Manon recalls her past and muses about her fatal beauty and her fate (Manon: Sola, perduta, abbandonata).

Des Grieux returns, having been unable to find water. Manon bids him a heart-rending farewell and dies in his arms. Overcome by grief, Des Grieux falls unconscious across her body (Manon, Des Grieux: Fra le tue braccia, amore).[5]

Instrumentation[edit]

The opera is scored for piccolo (doubling 3rd flute), two flutes, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, triangle, drum, tamtam, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, celesta, harp, and strings, together with offstage flute, offstage cornet, offstage bell, offstage drum, and offstage sleigh bells.

Recordings[edit]

Year Cast
(Manon Lescaut,
Des Grieux,
Lescaut)
Conductor,
Opera House and Orchestra
Label[6]
1931 Maria Zamboni,
Francesco Merli,
Enrico Molinari
Lorenzo Molajoli,
Teatro alla Scala Orchestra and Chorus
Audio CD: Arkadia
Cat: 78014
1953 Clara Petrella,
Vasco Campagnano,
Saturno Meletti
Federico Del Cupolo,
RAI (Turin) Orchestra and Chorus
Audio CD: Warner Fonit
Cat: 8573 87474-2
1954 Licia Albanese,
Jussi Björling,
Robert Merrill
Jonel Perlea,
Rome Opera orchestra and chorus
Audio CD:RCA Victor
Cat: 60573-2-RG
1959 Maria Callas,
Giuseppe Di Stefano,
Giulio Fioravanti
Tullio Serafin,
La Scala Orchestra and Chorus
Audio CD:EMI
Cat: CDS5 56301 2 (Mono)
1980 Renata Scotto,
Plácido Domingo,
Pablo Elvira
James Levine,
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus
DVD: Deutsche Grammophon
Cat: 00440 073 4241
1984 Kiri Te Kanawa,
Plácido Domingo,
Thomas Allen
Giuseppe Sinopoli,
Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus
(Recording of a performance at Covent Garden, 17 May)
DVD: Kultur Video
Cat: 5046671742
1984 Mirella Freni,
Plácido Domingo,
Renato Bruson
Giuseppe Sinopoli,
Philharmonia Orchestra
Royal Opera House Chorus
Audio CD: Deutsche Grammophon
Cat: 413 893-2 2
1993 Mirella Freni,
Luciano Pavarotti,
Dwayne Croft
James Levine,
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Audio CD: Decca
Cat: 440 200-2
1998 Maria Guleghina,
José Cura,
Lucio Gallo
Riccardo Muti,
La Scala Orchestra and Chorus
Audio CD: Deutsche Grammophon
Cat: 463 186-2

References[edit]

Notes

  1. ^ Colin Kendell, The Complete Puccini. Amberley Publishing 2012
  2. ^ Weaver, William; Puccini, Simonetta (2000). The Puccini Companion: Essays on Puccini's Life and Music. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 291. ISBN 0-393-32052-9. 
  3. ^ Osborne, Charles (2004). The Opera Lover's Companion. Yale University Press. p. 323. ISBN 0-300-12373-6. 
  4. ^ Fisher, Burton D.; Puccini, Giacomo (2004). Opera Classics Library Puccini Companion: The Glorious Dozen. Opera Journeys Publishing. p. 105. ISBN 1-930841-62-0. 
  5. ^ Synopsis is based on The Opera Goer's Complete Guide by Leo Melitz, 1921 version.
  6. ^ Recordings of Manon Lescaut on operadis-opera-discography.org

Sources

  • Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times Essential Library of Opera, Times Books (Henry Holt and Company), 2004.
  • Julian Budden, Manon Lescaut, Grove Music Online, 2005.
  • Giacomo Puccini, Manon Lescaut. Full score. Milan: Ricordi, 1958.

External links[edit]