Tuscany, Manon Lescaut

by Samuele Sodini

Puccini wrote Manon Lescaut between 1889 and 1892.
Neither of his previous operas ( Le Villi which has some charming music but includes spoken narration and rather a lot of hectic dancing, and Edgar with its huge canvas, huge chorus and undeveloped principal characters ) had had any real success.
Manon Lescaut, on the other hand, was a triumph. Its first performance ended with thirty curtain calls, hard-boiled critics confessed they’d wept and at the celebratory supper afterwards, Puccini was so overcome that he forgot all about the notes he’d written on his shirt cuff for his speech and could only stammer a few words.
What had happened? Two things, basically. The first is that for the first time it was he who decided on the subject of the opera.
His publisher, Giulio Ricordi, had already commissioned a libretto for a Russian subject but Puccini put his foot down. It wasn’t suitable for him. He’d been reading the 18th century French novel The Story of the CHevalier Des Grieux and Manon Lescaut and decided that here was his next opera. There was a snag. Massenet had written his opera Manon just a few years earlier, but Puccini brushed this aside. ” Manon is a heroine I really believe in, ” he wrote to Ricordi.
” She’s a woman who cannot fail to win the hearts of the public. I don’t see why there can’t be two operas about her. A woman like Manon can have more than one lover. ”
The second thing was the libretto. Puccini had accepted his first two libretti without demur but from now on he was much more demanding, engagingly so at times. His first idea, in fact, was to write it himself. Then two librettists were found and sacked.
In the end, at least five people contributed to it and since there were so many of them, they decided to put no names on it.
And with the right libretto, the composer was on song.
But to our tale. In act I, the beautiful ingenue Manon arrives in Amiens where she is to enter a nunnery. She’s accompanied by herĀ  double-dealing brother, Lescaut. Two men are smitten by her – the rich old lech Geronte who is planning to abduct her and the student Des Grieux who has fallen in love with her. She leaves for Paris with Des Grieux.
Act II, however, finds her in Geronte’s house, having her hair done for a party and regretting choosing money over love.
Guests arrive and a madrigal is sung. Manon tells her brother she’s bored and he goes to look for Des Grieux.
There follows a dancing lesson and then the guests leave with Geronte.
Des Grieux arrives and Manon persuades him that she still loves him.
As they prepare to leave, Geronte returns briefly and departs with a menacing, ” A presto! ” Manon delays while she gathers jewels together. Geronte has reported her to the police and when she’s arrested, he laughs.
Offstage and during an intermezzo, Manon is convicted of being an immoral woman and a thief, imprisoned and taken to Le Havre from where she is to be deported to America.
Act III is set in the docks in Le Havre at night. Lescaut tells Des Grieux he has bribed a soldier to help Manon escape and he and Des Grieux go looking for her.
The lovers have a brief, anguished conversation through a window.
Officers are heard approaching. Lescaut appears and warns Des Grieux that the game is up.
Townspeople begin to crowd and stage. The sergeant calls out the names of the women to be deported, Manon amongst them, and they go on board while the chorus comments. Des Grieux begs the ship’s captain to take him too.
Act IV finds Des Grieux and Manon in a desolate place ( Louisiana according to the libretto ). Both are spent but Manon is dying. While he looks for water for her, she sings of her regrets.
When he returns, she tells him how much she loves him and dies.
He slumps over her body.

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