“It is love, you know, that has caused all my errors.”
The words belong to the chevalier Des Grieux, the “hero” of Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel “L’Histoire du chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon,” which was part of a series titled “Mémoires d’un homme de qualité.” Prévost (1697-1763), from an aristocratic family, sowed many a wild oat in his day, prompting his father to try to tame him with stints in both the military and the monastery. So it’s no surprise that Des Grieux turns out to be Prévost not even disguised.
Prévost’s aim was to “paint a blind young man who turns his back on happiness to plunge of his own free will into the worst of misfortunes.” The catalyst to those misfortunes is one of literature’s early “femmes fatales,” the fickle girl Manon Lescaut. How naïve the guy is is even more apparent in the novel than in the various operatic treatments this story has given rise to.
In this misogynist world-view, the man takes no real responsibility for his own actions. Irresistible forces govern our lives, romantic love in this case, overturning reason and will. It is the woman who leads him to his doom. Are you paying attention Carmen, Lulu?
Prévost prayed to be “delivered” from love, as he put it, locked as he was into ideas of original sin, heredity and jealousy, a triple curse. Paradox abounds, as love is seen to add sense and unity to life, but also to cause alienation, suffering and interior tearing up. Man, supposedly the “master” of woman, winds up her slave. To paraphrase Prévost: By what misunderstanding between God and Man do all loves become accursed?
But we needn’t go all the way down that road to enjoy Puccini’s opera “Manon Lescaut” (1893), his third opera and the first one to win great success, launching him on his way to the massively popular “La Bohème,” “Tosca,” and “Madame Butterfly.”
Massenet had already turned the story into an opera nine years earlier (and Auber in 1856) and Puccini was strongly discouraged from attempting another version, but fortunately for him (and us) he was determined. His publisher, Giulio Ricordi, told him not to let himself “be led astray either by musical philosophy or the libretto.” That libretto is a patchy affair, with too many contributors to mention here. It amounts to a Readers’ Digest “Condensed” version of the most dramatic events, and as such works well for creating strong emotions that “sing” well.
As Verdi’s librettist, Boito, said: “Our art lives by elements unknown to spoken tragedy.” So, when you go see “Manon” and in Act I the fresh pretty ingénue is spirited away by the ardent young Des Grieux, don’t be surprised when Act II opens with her ensconced as the pampered mistress of the lecherous old Geronte. How she got there isn’t explained. And so forth.
One of the interesting things about the novel is that it is told entirely in flashback narrative by Des Grieux, after he has returned from exile in the “desert” of Louisiana territory, where Manon died. She was sentenced after trying to scam money and jewels from Geronte, and Puccini’s Act III shows her boarding the ship with prostitutes and assorted female low-lifes, while Des Grieux begs the captain to let him come aboard in any capacity just so he can be with her.
The very short (18 minute) Act IV is Manon’s death scene in the “wilderness” just outside New Orleans. How she died of thirst in this very moist climate is beyond me. What you don’t get in the opera is that the couple became friends with the provincial governor of New Orleans, living a virtuous life, basically “atoning” for their Old World impetuosity. But when the governor finds out that they aren’t really married, he arranges for Manon to wed his nephew, and when she won’t, that’s why they are sent into the countryside.
It just doesn’t matter when you consider the number of Puccini “hits” in this opera: Act I’s love hymn sung by Des Grieux “Donna non vidi mai” Act II’s crocodile tears of a kept woman (or are they?) “In quelle trine morbide” and the Act IV death scene “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” which was cut from the already short act by Puccini, and only restored in 1923 at Toscanini’s insistence.
By the way, did the young Puccini and his student friends really steal organ pipes from a local church and trade them for cigarettes?
One of his early professors kicked him in the shins every time he sang something flat in an ear-training exercise, creating a lifelong physical knee-jerk reaction whenever Puccini heard a singer sing flat. Sopranos and tenors, beware. It takes voices with big “heart” and color, allied with emotional sincerity, and intelligent conducting and stage direction to make the “arch” of Puccini work, but when it does, there’s nothing like it.
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs