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The Emergence of Manon

by Roger Brunyate

Production photos: Manon at Peabody, November 2000

Other writings by Roger Brunyate

When the Abbé Prévost’s novella Manon Lescaut was published in 1731, it became such a succès de scandale that all copies were ordered to be seized. Despite this, it was soon reprinted in countless editions and became a classic in the literature of the libertine.

The nineteenth century viewed Prévost’s tale in a more romantic light, and it became the inspiration for a remarkable number of operas, beginning with a setting by Daniel Auber in 1856. His version was eclipsed by Jules Massenet’s Manon (the work to be presented by the Peabody Opera Theatre), which established the composer’s reputation in 1884. Ten years later (while Massenet himself was writing a somewhat trivial one-act sequel, The Portrait of Manon), Giacomo Puccini took up the Frenchman’s challenge, remarking that “a woman like Manon can have more than one lover,” and produced Manon Lescaut, the opera that made his reputation in 1894. Sixty years later still, in post-war Germany, Hans Werner Henze followed the same pattern but in a very different sensibility, establishing himself as an opera composer with Boulevard Solitude, a modern retelling of the Manon story.

Undoubtedly, as Puccini’s remark suggests, the fascination for all these composers was the central figure of Manon herself, the quintessence of bewitching femininity, innocent and conniving at the same time. But this view of the novel as a universal portrait of the human heart is essentially a romantic one; it is not surprising that Prévost’s work had to wait more than a century to be turned into an opera, or that the entrancing Manon should wait that long to emerge fully as a character. For the full title of Prévost’s novella is The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut. It is not Manon but her lover who is the major figure in the story, which is told by des Grieux almost a year after her death. While Manon haunts the tale as a mysterious but irresistible force, the emotional journey into the dark night of the soul is his, not hers. A century and a half later, Massenet, that incomparable painter of women, would reverse this priority, using his powers as a musician to create a multi-faceted portrait of Manon, showing aspects that are only hinted at in the book, while leaving the Chevalier a sympathetic but less complex figure.


First and foremost, Prévost tells a story, and it is the narrative thread that propels both the novel and the operas made from it. The hero, des Grieux, a young man of noble family, with a brilliant academic career at high school behind him, encounters a beautiful young woman in a square in Amiens and falls in love at first sight. This is Manon Lescaut, fifteen years of age, whose middle-class family are sending her to a convent to check the pleasure-loving tendencies already appearing in her character. Des Grieux swears that this will never happen, and elopes with her in a rented carriage, taking her to live with him in a Parisian garret. In Paris, however, Manon attracts the attentions of men who can provide for her more fully than her young lover. By the time the Chevalier’s father, the Comte des Grieux, discovers where he is living and sends men to take him home by force, Manon already has the entrée to a wealthier life-style.

Months pass. Des Grieux resumes his studies at the seminary of Saint-Sulpice and delivers his graduation sermon to great acclaim. But who should be in the congregation but Manon? Once more unable to resist her, he abandons his vows and flees with her to the suburbs. At first he lives by selling the jewelry Manon has received from other lovers, but when this is not enough to keep her in her accustomed style, he learns how to win at the gaming tables by cheating at cards. Many other adventures follow which are not in the opera. Manon will desert des Grieux twice more and be taken back by him each time. Eventually he will join with her in tricking her older lovers out of their money. They are arrested twice. The first time, des Grieux escapes (killing a man in the process), and procures the escape of Manon in turn. The second time, however, there is no way out for her; she is sentenced as a prostitute to be transported to Louisiana. Des Grieux goes with her, but they have to flee New Orleans on account of a duel, and Manon dies trying to cross the mountains into South Carolina.

The Abbe Prevost  
The Abbé Prévost
There are hints that Prévost’s hero embodies aspects of the author himself. He too came to Paris from Northern France as a young man. He too entered a monastery after what he described as “an unhappy affair.” Some years later, he too fled the cloister in search of adventure. But too little is known about Prévost’s life as a young man to be any more precise than that. At a certain point, as the well-born hero descends deeper into wickedness, the tradition of the picaresque novel takes over, making this, in Montesquieu’s words, “a novel whose hero is a rogue and whose heroine a trollop.”

Massenet’s hero, however, is no rogue, and his heroine is far from being a trollop. The composer and his librettists Meilhac and Gille used only the first quarter of Prévost’s book, thus entirely avoiding the descent into criminality. It is true that des Grieux is accused of card-sharping in the fifth scene, which leads in turn to Manon’s arrest, but he is innocent of the charge. Instead of three separate betrayals, the opera has only one, and Manon is portrayed as suffering deeply from the awareness of her conflicting needs.

The opera divides itself into six scenes (presented in two acts at Peabody). The first shows the first meeting of the young lovers in Amiens and their elopement. The second depicts their Parisian idyll and the forces which break it up. The third, on the Cours de la Reine in Paris, shows Manon as the queen of the demi-monde, but already regretting the loss of des Grieux. In the fourth scene, she visits him at Saint-Sulpice after his sermon, and seduces him into leaving the seminary. The fifth (echoing the third act of La Traviata) shows the ill-fated gambling party in the Hôtel Transylvanie. The sixth depicts Manon’s death in her lover’s arms, the locale remaining in France rather than Louisiana.

  Portrait of 
Jules Massenet
Jules Massenet
Massenet fills out this framework both in breadth and depth. He builds up the local color in the crowd scenes (1, 3, and 5 in the list above) in the way that was a great favorite with French opera audiences, as we know from Bizet’s Carmen. This aspect will be greatly simplified at Peabody, however. Instead, we shall concentrate on Massenet’s greatest innovation: his use of music to create an intimate and penetrating portrait of his two leading characters, and especially of his heroine, Manon.

Manon, again like Carmen, is an opéra comique; that is, it includes spoken dialogue. Massenet’s dialogue, however, is seldom delivered in silence. Mostly, it is spoken over wisps of musical accompaniment, occasionally blossoming into sung phrases, and merging seamlessly into short arias. There is thus a naturalness to the texture which makes us believe that we can see right into the character’s hearts. When Manon begins her first aria, for instance, “Je suis encore tout étourdie” (I feel quite light-headed), her hesitant phrases emerge so naturally out of the preceding conversation that one is hardly aware that an aria has begun, yet it is the perfect portrayal of a fifteen-year-old girl coming to town for the first time. When the Chevalier des Grieux enters (as conductor Hajime Teri Murai points out), he is given a graceful theme associated with his family breeding. But the moment he sees Manon, he enters a musical delirium which reduces him to stammered speech as he approaches her, over another hesitant theme in the orchestra that will eventually grow into the principal motif of their love.

Or take the sensitivity of the second scene, when Massenet depicts the lovers in their Parisian garret (an episode unaccountably omitted by Puccini). The two most famous arias in the act are both very short, very quiet, and amazingly simple musically. One of them, the Chevalier’s dream of a simple cottage in the country (an impossible dream, knowing Manon’s taste for excitement), is sung in light head voice throughout, as though it would shatter the fragile image to sing any louder. Before that, already knowing that she will leave des Grieux, Manon has said farewell to their plain wooden table in an aria that is even simpler still; both this and the preceding recitative reveal an awareness of her own fragility which has no equivalent in the Prévost at all. By the time she sings the brilliant Gavotte in the third scene, she is mistress of all she surveys, but even this music has a tinge of wistful self-awareness.

What makes Manon return to des Grieux? Come to that, what made her leave him? Is it that she is torn between the pleasures of love and the love of pleasure — a simple duality in which the allure of the road not taken is always stronger than the satisfactions of the one she is on? This explains the multiple switchbacks of the novel better than the simpler structure of the opera. Director John Lehmeyer suggests a simpler trajectory: that Manon is addicted to pleasure, just as des Grieux is addicted to her. In the first scene, on her way to the convent, Manon sees the glamorous life of the “actresses” on the arm of a wealthy man, and wishes she could be like them. Des Grieux offers her escape to the heady world of Paris, but once there she becomes aware of possibilities that he cannot offer. In the Cours de la Reine scene, she is the toast of the town, but the pleasure drug no longer satisfies her; she seeks something stronger. This, in Lehmeyer’s opinion, is what leads her back to des Grieux, piqued by the challenge of seducing him on the very steps of the altar.

Sibyl 
Sanderson, the original Manon  
Sibyl Sanderson, the original Manon
praying in the Saint Sulpice scene
There is no doubt that this is one of the most powerful scenes in the opera. Here again, Massenet’s skill at psychological revelation comes to the fore. Before des Grieux and Manon meet, each has an aria, and each aria is a prayer. His is a desperate plea for God to take away the image of Manon that has continued to obsess him even in his studies for the priesthood. Hers is even more striking: a plea not that God should take away her temptation, but that He should forgive her for the sin that she is entirely determined to commit. Given such electricity, the duet which follows, “N’est-ce plus ma main?” (Is this not still my hand?), is one of the most erotic scenes in the repertoire. Rodney Milnes, writing in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, describes the shimmering violins at the moment when des Grieux finally joins in with Manon’s tune as “one of operatic literature’s great X-rated effects.”

But not even passion is enough. Whether seeking money or a further rush of excitement, Manon takes the Chevalier gambling, they encounter a former admirer whom they have duped, and that encounter destroys them. The opera ends, as Prévost’s novel begins, with Manon being taken with a cartload of prostitutes to embark for Louisiana. Des Grieux bribes the guard to allow them a few moments together, but he is too late. Manon is already mortally ill, and after a touching reprise of the “N’est-ce plus ma main?” duet, in which it is now his hand reaching out for hers, she dies.

At the height of her fame, Manon predicted that she would go out in a burst of laughter. That is far from being the case, but her very last words show at least a wry acceptance, repeating a phrase she had used in the first scene when she thought she was going straight to a convent: “So that’s the story of Manon Lescaut.” A mere three years have passed, but her story was by no means that simple. Prévost in creating Manon, and Massenet even more by reflecting her soul in music, have left us with an image of the eternal feminine that still haunts the imagination almost three centuries after her name was first set to paper.

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