Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The desert

Massenet's Manon never makes it out of France: she dies on the road to Le Havre, before she can be deported. Her opera, too, remains essentially French, its passions ever circumscribed by the play of social expectations. (Prevost's original novel is more extreme in its events but as much, if not more, wrapped up in the French context and mores -- and incidentally, the lovers don't get more than six miles outside of newly-founded New Orleans.) But Puccini's Manon Lescaut makes it not only over the sea but thereby, in the fourth act, beyond human society altogether. The effect is perhaps not even as "Italian" as it is modern -- at least as remarkably so as the Wagnerian influence on the score.

Puccini and his gaggle of librettists and script doctors -- who here assembled perhaps (along with La Forza del Destino) the most unfairly-maligned libretto in the canon -- set up the contrast of this "desert" finale with an extraordinary set of three preceding acts. They do not, of course, tell a thorough story (only Acts II and III straightforwardly follow each other, and it's in this least eventful gap that Puccini put the opera's intermezzo). But each enacts the characteristic action of the opera (and maybe of opera itself) -- Manon becoming, as she needs, the center of an attentive crowd -- in ever-less-innocent (and ever-more-striking) form. Puccini repeatedly and memorably juxtaposes the soloists' own expressions (particularly Manon's) with a watchful chorus' background. He of course used the chorus in other memorable ensembles later, but never as repeatedly and singlemindedly as for Manon Lescaut. When it's wholly gone, at the end, the absence is stunning, almost incomprehensible: in a sense, that's the true (and fatal) desert.

*     *     *

True to his Italian roots and stated intentions, Puccini offers a more impassioned account of the Manon story, showing her almost exclusively in extremis -- and with few of the subtle character touches she gets in Massenet's first few acts. But there's an interesting distance, too, brought by the thematically repetitive nature of the action. Again and again Des Grieux's jealous love meets (with Lescaut in between) the group attention on Manon, and whether nostalgic and sentimental (Act I), brittle and glittering (Act II), or movingly agonized (Act III, one of Puccini's greatest dramatic inspirations), none of the particular arrangements holds exclusive truth. Even before the solitary finale, we are far not only from the unproblematic (if not problem-free) existence of Massenet's Manon in her France but the straightforwardness of Italian verisimo. If Puccini's heroine is less subtly drawn, she and her world get more dimensions.


  1. Thanks for these thoughtful comments. I was there last night, way closer to the action than I usually am, and I was blown away by the performances and very intrigued by the piece itself, the thematic repetitions, the construction, etc. Lots to think about.

  2. You're quite welcome. I was there last night too, and should have a post up tonight...

  3. I wish I had more concrete to say, but hey, here's a go at something that popped into my head as interesting:

    Something about Mattila's performance here reminded me of her Katya Kabanova (maybe I'm getting twinges from having seen it up close as well? who knows). I think it's that her Manon has this incredible radiance (seen in the duet and the first act) which can shade over into what I don't want to call hysteria, but I may well anyways; whatever it is, there's something almost manic about it. At times it makes me wonder what that Tosca she's been criticized for (and she didn't take it well, I'm pretty sure I have some sources on that) looks like on the stage. My own inclination is that Manon is a good temperamental match but the Tosca isn't because of the character arcs and what mood you need to spend more time in.

    The part in the end where she's finally standing up, singing about not wanting to die, was such incredible raw pain, like she's finally realized what she should have put first in life, and didn't.

    I especially want to see the third act again; the symphonic intermezzo which they treated as a prelude was absolutely stunning, a little melody that reminded me of Bruckner sneaking in, and some inventive use of post-Wagnerian harmony.

    Are we in the minority on this one?

  4. "Are we in the minority on this one?"

    I think so: most of the reviews I saw were either fixated on some ideal Puccinicists of yore or condescending to the piece. Tommasini wasn't, but he didn't seem as intoxicated by the opera itself as, well, I am.

    (Then again, I'm sufficiently impatient with conventional Puccinism to wish some eccentric impresario to offer, say, Boheme with Roeschmann and Vogt...)

    Maybe this discussion should move to the thread above.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.