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PUCCINI: Manon Lescaut

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Giacomo Puccini(1858-1924): Manon Lescaut (Highlights)

Giacomo Puccini'sfirst great success came in 1893 with his operatic version of the AbbePrevost's novel Manon Lescaut, a work that established him as a possiblesuccessor to Verdi. There had been disagreements over the libretto, which inthe end involved a number of writers, whose names did not appear on thepublished text.

The Abbe Prevost, Antoine-Fran?ºois Prevost d'Exiles, was born in 1697and was by turns a Jesuit novice, a soldier, a Benedictine monk and a convertto Protestantism. He was forced to seek exile from his native France in 1728and lived until 1734 in England and Holland, undergoing a period ofimprisonment in the former country for alleged forgery .He was allowed toreturn to France as a Benedictine monk and was briefly in the service of thePrince de Conti as chaplain until compelled to escape abroad again when he wasaccused of writing various satirical pamphlets. He returned to France in 1742and continued until his death in 1763 as a writer, leading a life complicatedby mistresses and by debt. His works included translations of Richardson'snovels Pamela and Clarissa Harlowe and the seven volumes of Memoireset aventures d'un homme de qualite, written during his early exile. In theseventh volume the gentleman of quality of the title receives the confidencesof the Chevalier des Grieux, a weak-willed hero who resembles in many ways theauthor. This classical novel is in its elevation of sensibility and in thestrength of the passions depicted a precursor of Romanticism. It served as theinspiration of earlier operas by Auber and by Massenet, the second of whosework was first staged in Paris in 1884, bearing the simple title Manon.

Puccini's version of Manon Lescaut was first mounted at theTeatro Regio in Turin on 1st February 1893, the year and month of the firstproduction of Verdi's Falstaff in Milan. The opera proved an immediatesuccess. It was staged at Covent Garden and at the Grand Opera House ofPhiladelphia the following year. There were subsequent revisions and temporarychanges, with alterations in orchestration suggested by Toscanini forperformances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, these last incorporated inthe later published score. The libretto itself, effective enough, in spite ofits multiple authorship, offers certain problems, not least in the omission ofthe original second act suggested by Praga and Oliva and set in the Parisapartment of Des Grieux, although what has happened in the interval between thepresent first and second acts is quickly apparent.


The opera is set in the second half of the eighteenth century. Outsidean inn near the Paris Gate in Amiens townspeople, young and old, take theevening air. Following a short introduction, [1] the girls are eyed by a groupof students, [2] among them the Chevalier des Grieux, who is persuaded by hisfriends to pretend to flirt with them. A coach approaches, halting in front ofthe inn. Lescaut and the elderly Geronte are welcomed into the inn and Lescautsigns to his sister Manon to wait outside. [3] Des Grieux, struck by Manon'sbeauty, addresses her, asking her name. She tells him that she is Manon Lescautand that the next day she will leave for a convent. Des Grieux seeks to helpher escape her fate. Called by her brother, Manon goes inside, finallypromising that she will return after dark to meet Des Grieux, [4] who sings nowin praise of her incomparable beauty and gentle innocence. While Lescaut comesout and joins the young men gambling at the inn tables, Geronte tells thelandlord to order a coach and horses, to be ready within the hour behind theinn, for a man and a young girl to go to Paris. Geronte has been overheard byEdmondo, a fellow-student of Des Grieux, who tells the latter what is beingplotted and agrees to help him outwit both Lescaut, now absorbed in the game,and Geronte. [5] Manon comes from the inn, and, seeing Des Grieux, joins him,although she knows it is unwise. Des Grieux declares his love, to which sheclearly responds. He tells Manon of Geronte's plan to abduct her and offershimself in the old man's place and they seize their opportunity to elopetogether. Lescaut is left to dissuade Geronte from immediate pursuit, on thegrounds that Des Grieux will soon be out of money and then Geronte may have hisway.

By the opening of the second act matters have resolved themselves. Manonhas abandoned Des Grieux and given Way to Geronte. [6] In the luxury of arichly decorated salon in Geronte's house in Paris, she enjoys every luxury,but misses her young lover, now rich enough, her brother tells her, as a resultof his gambling. [7] She takes up a hand-mirror and admires herself. Hearingsomeone approach, she asks if the sedan-chair that Geronte had gone to order isready, but it is Des Grieux who enters. She asks if he can still love her, buthe retmains bitter at her faithlessness, while she begs his forgiveness, astheir old love is revived and she falls into his arms. At this point Gerontereturns and reproaches Manon for her ingratitude. She hands him her mirror andtells him to look at himself. Offended, he goes out, threatening that they willmeet again soon. [8] Des Grieux urges Manon to escape with him at once, but shehesitates, reluctant to leave the luxury in which she has lived with Geronte,while he laments his own degradation as a gambler. She again seeks forgivenessand swears to be true to her young lover. At this moment Lescaut hurries inwith the news that Geronte has denounced Manon and that constables are on theway to seize her. There is no time to be lost, but Manon is anxious to take herjewels with her. The delay is fatal and Manon is arrested, while Lescautrestrains Des Grieux from violence.

[9] An Intermezzo covers the journey of the imprisoned Manon toLe Havre, from where she is condemned to transportation. The music reflects thedespair of Des Grieux, who has done all he can to secure her release.

[10] The third act is set near the harbour in Le Havre. Dawn is breakingand Des Grieux and Lescaut are watching outside the prison, hoping for Manon'sescape, as Lescaut has arranged. Manon appears behind the bars of a prisonwindow and Des Grieux seizes her hand, while Lescaut leaves the coupletogether. He tells how they plan to rescue her, but in the event the plot goesawry. There is a roll of drums and the door of the barracks opens. A sergeantand soldiers come out, and with them a group of chained women, now handed overto the ship's captain for transportation. [11] The sergeant orders the women andtheir guards away and pulls Manon away from Des Grieux. Breaking down in tears,he begs the captain to allow him to sail with his beloved Manon, even as acabin boy, and his plea is granted. Manon turns and, guessing what hashappened, shows her own delight. She opens her arms to him, as Des Grieux runsto her. Lescaut shakes his head and walks away.

The final act is set in America. In the wilderness near New Orleansclouds cover the sky, as evening falls. Manon and Des Grieux are seen,dishevelled and exhaused. [12] He tells her to lean all her weight on him, asthe road comes to an end, but she can go no further. She faints and Des Grieuxtries desperately to revive her. Coming to, she tells him to leave her and seekhelp and he resolves to do what he can. [13] Alone, Manon realises death isnear. [14] Des Grieux returns and she falls into his arms, assuring him againand again of her love. Her faults will be forgotten but her love will neverdie, she tells him, her last words, leaving Des Grieux to fall grief-strickenon her body.

Keith Anderson

Disc: 1
Manon Lescaut (Highlights)
1 Act 1: Introduction
2 Act 1: Tra voi, belle, brune e bionde
3 Act 1: Cortese damigella, il priego mio accettate
4 Act 1: Donna non vidi mai
5 Act 1: Vedete? Io son fedele
6 Act 2: In quelle trine morbide
7 O saro la piu bella!
8 Act 2: Senti, di qui partiamo... Ah! Manon, mi tra
9 Act 2: Intermezzo
10 Act 3: Ansia eterna, crudel...
11 Act 3: Presto!... In fila!... Marciate!... No!...
12 Act 4: Tutta su me ti posa... Manon... senti amor
13 Sola, perduta, abbandonata (Hannah And Her Sisters
14 Act 4: Fra le tue braccia... amore!
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