By Lynne Gray, PhD
Please note the performance can be seen at www.metopera.org.
Sunday, May 24
Massenet’s Manon ~2Hrs and 53Mins
Conducted by Fabio Luisi, starring Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczała, and Paulo Szot. Transmitted live on April 7, 2012.
Anna Netrebko (so far we’ve seen her in Trovatore, Adriana, Macbeth, Pasquale, Aida, Hoffmann, and Bolena – quite a record!) scored another win in Laurent Pelly’s acclaimed 2012 production of Massenet’s Manon, singing the title heroine for the first time at the Met. Manon’s story—from innocent country girl to celebrated courtesan to destitute prisoner—is one of opera’s most famous tragedies. Piotr Beczała is des Grieux, Manon’s lover, who decides to become a priest when she leaves him, but ultimately cannot resist her. Paulo Szot (Broadway’s South Pacific) sings her brother, Lescaut, and Fabio Luisi conducts the Met Orchestra and Chorus.
Based on the scandalous 18th-century novella, L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, by Abbé Prévost, Massenet’s 1884 version features one of the most challenging, yet most beguiling, soprano roles in opera. When Puccini undertook to write an opera on the same story only five years later, his publisher tried to persuade him not to because of the success of Massenet’s work. In a famous quote, Puccini is said to have claimed, “A woman like Manon can have more than one lover.”
As has so often been the case all over the world of late, Pelly decided to move the action from its original early 18th-century setting to an era some 150 years later, partly to highlight the fact that even over a century later, “A free woman is dangerous… and that is what the story is about.” Like Carmen and Violetta, it is most certainly about a woman who gets punished for doing the exact same thing that the men in her society do regularly without consequence— and that is one of the reasons why it is, indeed, a compelling story!
The opera is set in and around Paris and includes important landmarks like the Church of St Sulpice. When the curtain rises we are in the courtyard of an inn where de Brétigny, a nobleman, has just arrived, accompanied by Guillot, an aging rake who is the Minister of Finance, and the three flirtatious young actresses they are ‘entertaining’ – Poussette, Javotte, and Rosette (the Ping, Pang, & Pong comic relief of this opera). Lescaut enters, awaiting the arrival of his cousin from the country, Manon, whom he is to escort to a convent. This is Manon’s very first trip and she is giddy with excitement and wonder – especially at Poussette, Javotte, and Rosette! Guillot tries a rather heavy-handed attempt at seduction which is thwarted by Lescaut, but not before Guillot offers Manon his waiting carriage which will take her to Paris with him and away from the convent should she but say the word.
The young Chevalier des Grieux, traveling home to see his father, passes by and upon seeing Manon is immediately smitten. In just a few bars, they are madly in love. Both of their planned journeys, hers to the convent and des Grieux’s to his home, are swiftly abandoned, as they decide to flee together – in the furious Guillot’s carriage.
In Act II, the poor but ecstatically happy couple are living together in a dilapidated Paris garret. With little hope of success, but nevertheless expressing optimism, des Grieux writes to his father, begging for permission to marry Manon. They are interrupted by Lescaut and a disguised De Brétigny. While Lescaut distracts des Grieux, de Brétigny tries to court Manon with offers of his protection and great wealth. When she hesitates, he tells her that des Grieux is about to be kidnapped by his father and she will be forced to move on anyway. Manon agonizes over the decision but realizes that she is unable resist the temptation of a glamourous life offered by a wealthy man. Looking around the tiny room she has shared with Des Grieux, whom she sincerely loves, she bids farewell to their humble life together in ‘Adieu, notre petite table.’ When des Grieux returns from posting the letter to his father, she does not warn him he is about to be abducted and he shares with her his modest visions for their future happiness ‘En fermant les yeux’ (the “Dream Song”). He is roughly kidnapped by his father’s men and the distressed, Manon cries out, “My poor chevalier!”
Act III begins on the promenade of the Cours-la-Reine on a feast-day. Lescaut and Guillot are enjoying the sights and, once again, the company of Poussette, Javotte and Rosette. De Brétigny arrives, soon joined by Manon, now sumptuously dressed and with a large retinue of admirers. She sings about her new life ‘Je marche sur tous les chemins’, following it with an enchanting gavotte ‘Obéissons quand leur voix appelle’ on the joys of love and youth. Manon overhears Des Grieux’s father tell Brétigny that his son is “Chevalier” is no longer, but now Abbé. She tries but is unable to resist her compulsion to go to St. Sulpice. At the chapel, des Grieux’s father has unsuccessfully tried to keep his son from becoming a priest, and des Grieux, himself, prays fervently that his thoughts of Manon will fly away ‘Ah ! Fuyez, douce image’ (Ah! vanish sweet memory too dear to my heart). As he prays, Manon appears and begs forgiveness. His resistance proves futile in the end and they escape together once again.
Act IV unfolds in a gaming salon where Manon has finally convinced des Grieux they must go in order to replenish their dwindling funds. Des Grieux finally realizes that Manon’s needs for worldly pleasures will be the death of them both. Resigned, he gambles – with Guillot (who still holds a grudge against him for stealing Manon). Des Grieux wins and Manon momentarily exults until Guillot accuses them of cheating and calls the police. As they are being arrested, Des Grieux’s father, who has come just in time to quietly arrange for his son’s acquittal, insists that Manon be treated as an undesirable and will not protect her.
The tragedy ends along the bleak road to Le Havre where Manon is to be deported. Lescaut and des Grieux fail in their attempt to free Manon but bribe a guard to let her stay with them for a few moments. The sick and exhausted Manon falls exhausted into des Grieux’s arms. We have the requisite, and suitably beautiful soprano death scene in which the lovers reminisce, and she reassures des Grieux of the sincerity of her love. Then, saying her story has ended, ‘Et c’est là l’histoire de Manon Lescaut,’ Manon dies in his arms. Sigh…….
1. Anna Netrebko as the title character and Piotr Beczala as des Grieux in Massenet’s “Manon” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
2. Anna Netrebko as the title character and Piotr Beczala as des Grieux in Massenet’s “Manon” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
3. Anna Netrebko on the promenade of the Cours-la-Reine in Massenet’s “Manon” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
4. Anna Netrebko as Manon and Piotr Beczala as des Grieux in Massenet’s “Manon” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
5. Anna Netrebko is arrested in Massenet’s “Manon” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
6. Anna Netrebko as Manon and Piotr Beczala as des Grieux on the road to Le Havre in Massenet’s “Manon” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.