Preview of The Met’s Manon Lescaut
by Larry Murray
Manon Lescaut by Giacomo Puccini is grand both in scale and in emotions, as the Metropolitan Opera offers its next Live in HD transmission with host, Deborah Voigt. Check your date book for Saturday, March 5 at 12:55pm. The running time will be approximately 3 hours, 30 minutes, including intermissions. Here in the Berkshires these programs can be enjoyed at the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington and the Beacon Cinemas in Pittsfield. Telecast to thousands of theatres worldwide, you can check for you local venue on the Met Website.
Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna star as the ill-fated lovers at the center of Manon Lescaut, Puccini’s passionate adaptation of the classic novel about a free-spirited country girl who becomes the toast of Paris. Sir Richard Eyre’s new production, set in the 1940s, reunites him with set designer Rob Howell, his collaborator on recent Met productions of Le Nozze di Figaro, Werther, and Carmen. Met Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi conducts the new staging, which also stars Massimo Cavalletti as Manon’s cousin, Lescaut, and Brindley Sherratt as Geronte, her wealthy older lover.
While the Met planned this production to feature Opolais’s interpretation of the title role, which she has sung to acclaim at the Bavarian State Opera and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Roberto Alagna, a star at the Met for 20 years, was a late addition to the cast. When Jonas Kaufmann withdrew from the production due to illness while rehearsals were underway, Alagna—at the Met starring in Pagliacci—agreed to undertake the challenge of learning the new staging and preparing a role he has never before sung onstage in the weeks leading up to the premiere.
Conductor Fabio Luisi consistently commanded the score with unerring vision. He surpassed himself with his penetrating treatment of the opening orchestral flourish and followed with a particularly terrifying shiver in the strings, achieved by bowing close to the bridges of the instruments… Orchestrally speaking, this was one of the best-studied, most handsomely executed performances of this opera that I’ve ever hears.” – WQXR
Based on Abbé Prévost’s novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, Puccini’s opera Manon Lescaut, not to be confused with Massenet’s opera based on the same novel, made its world premiere in 1893 at the Teatro Regio di Torino. The libretto credits five librettists in addition to Puccini, including Luigi Lillica and Giuseppe Giacosa who eventually contributed to Puccini’s most famous operas: La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca. Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s first major success, and following the opening, George Bernard Shaw named Puccini “the successor to Verdi.”
Manon Lescaut has been performed 215 times by the Met. Its first Met performance was in the presence of the composer in 1907 starring Lina Cavalieri as Manon, Enrico Caruso as des Grieux, and Antonio Scotti as Lescaut. Frances Alda sang Manon a record 29 times with the company, Enrico Caruso sang Des Grieux a record 37 performances with the Met, and Giuseppe De Luca sang the role of Lescaut a record 46 performances with the company.
As Manon, the soprano Kristine Opolais sounded as glamorous as she looked… And this was another fine night for the conductor Fabio Luisi, who coaxed plush, textured playing from the impressive Met Orchestra, while bringing refreshing restraint and lucid detail to Puccini’s often teeming score.” – The New York Times
Synopsis of Manon Lescaut
Amiens, France, around 1720. Edmondo, his fellow students and their girlfriends are enjoying the summer evening on a public square. They welcome the young Chevalier Des Grieux, who sings a jaunty serenade to the girls (“Tra voi, belle”). Soon the courtyard stirs with the arrival of a carriage bearing Manon and her brother, Lescaut, who is escorting his sister to a convent at their father’s orders. Sharing the coach with them is Geronte, an old and wealthy Parisian gallant. While the innkeeper shows Lescaut and Geronte to their rooms, Des Grieux introduces himself to Manon. She is intrigued by him and agrees to meet him later, then joins her brother. The Chevalier realizes he has fallen in love (“Donna non vidi mai”). Geronte, who also has designs on Manon, bribes the innkeeper to arrange for Manon’s abduction. Edmondo, who has overheard the conversation, warns Des Grieux. As evening falls, Manon keeps her promise and meets Des Grieux, who persuades her to evade both the convent and her elderly admirer by running off to Paris with him instead (Duet: “Vedete? Io son fedele”). Geronte returns to find the young lovers escaping in the carriage he hired for himself and Manon; furious, he is calmed by Lescaut, who assures him a girl like Manon who loves luxury will be easy to lure away from a poor student.
Manon has left Des Grieux and is living in a sumptuous Paris apartment as Geronte’s mistress. When Lescaut arrives to congratulate her on her success, she sadly replies that luxury cannot make up for the loss of Des Grieux (“In quelle trine morbide”). The arrival of a group of musicians who sing a madrigal in her honor does not change her mood, but Manon’s vanity is aroused when Geronte appears with some of his friends to pay tribute to her beauty. The men watch her dancing lesson, while she sings a love song to the strains of a minuet (“L’ora, o Tirsi”). Lescaut goes off to find Des Grieux. After the guests have left, the Chevalier confronts Manon (Duet: “Tu, tu, amore? Tu?”). He first reproaches her as faithless, but soon gives in to her beauty and insistent declarations of true love. Geronte returns to find them in each other’s arms. When Manon holds up a mirror to mock his age, he leaves, threatening revenge. Lescaut bursts in to warn the lovers that the city guards are on their way, but Manon, in spite of Des Grieux’s repreoach (“Ah, Manon, mi tradisce”), insists on gathering her jewels first. The delay proves disastrous: led in by Geronte, gendarmes arrest Manon for theft and drag her off to prison.
On a street by the harbor of Le Havre, Des Grieux and Lescaut wait for dawn, hoping to rescue Manon from deportation to America. When she appears at the bars of her prison, the lovers once again exchange vows and words of hope. The sound of a shot indicates that Lescaut’s plot has been discovered. A band of soldiers lead in the women prisoners, who are each called by name to board the ship, while a curious crowd gathers to comment on their appearance. Des Grieux desperately begs the Captain to let him accompany Manon to the New World (“Guardate, pazzo son!”). Moved, the Captain agrees.
Wandering in a wasteland where she and Des Grieux have fled after landing at New Orleans, the ailing Manon is at the end of her strength and cannot go any farther. When Des Grieux goes off in search of help, she is overcome by terror and despair (“Sola, perduta, abbandonata!”). Des Grieux returns, but Manon dies in his arms.