Manon Lescaut Concert Performance
Introduction: 7:00 pm
From naive innocence to femme fatale and outlaw – the fall from grace of the heroine of Abbé Prévost novel L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut is extreme. No wonder that the easygoing Manon Lescaut, who shifts constantly between true love and her lust for luxury, inflamed the imagination of opera composers. With the dramma lirico Manon Lescaut, the 35-year-old Giacomo Puccini made his artistic breakthrough in 1893. The work established him as one of the leading opera composers of his time – even although there was already the extremely successful Manon by the Frenchman Jules Massenet. But Puccini knew how to create a unique version, full of passion and drama, captivating melodies and seductive instrumental textures.
The role of Manon Lescaut is sung by the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, a soloist highly valued by the Berliner Philharmoniker: She has been engaged on several occasions to sing the role of Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre: both for the concert performances in 2005 and 2012, and for the staged operatic productions in Aix-en-Provence and Salzburg in 2007 and 2008. Each time, she impressed audiences with her expressive voice, in both lyrical and dramatic moments.
At her side as Des Grieux, Manon's great love, is the Naples-born Massimo Giordano, one of the leading bel canto tenors. Conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker in this concert performance of the opera at the Philharmonie is chief conductor Sir Simon Rattle, who guided the ensemble through the score at the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden just a few days before this performance.
Giacomo Puccini embarked on an opera career with two disappointments. Le Villi (The Willis), which began life as a one-acter, enjoyed only a modest, short-lived success. Then, after painfully slow gestation, Edgar, a dramma lirico after Alfred de Musset, was also coolly received. The unequivocal breakthrough came with his third effort, although its genesis, too, was accompanied by unusual complications and obstacles. This time Puccini’s persistence paid off: on 1 February 1893 at Turin’s Teatro Regio, he celebrated what was perhaps the most triumphant premiere of his life. Indeed, that Carnival season witnessed two historic events in the motherland of melodramma. In Turin, Puccini launched an international career with the heart-rendingly sad Manon Lescaut. Eight days later at La Scala, the aged Verdi spoke his droll last words on matters theatrical in Falstaff, concluding his commedia lirica with the pronouncement that this whole world is no more than a “burla” – a bewildering jest. One might add that the works of both maestri – the up-and-coming and the soon departing – were typically preoccupied with sorrow and death.
The Milan publishing house of Ricordi could normally count on raking in profits with an established master and national idol like Verdi, whereas commissioning a new opera from Puccini was not without its risks. But once again Giulio Ricordi combined business savvy and a prognostic instinct for new artists, neither stinting on encouragement nor on financial resources to lend a perceived genius a helping hand. He began by sending Puccini on his first visit to the Bayreuth Festival in summer 1889. Returning home from the “Green Hill” with boosted self-confidence and enriched by encounters with Wagner’s music, Puccini was already occupied with a new opera project. What he had set his heart on, however, was not at all what his publisher had in mind: L’Histoire du chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, the once popular novel the French writer Antoine François Prévost d’Exiles, known as the Abbé Prévost. It is the cautionary tale of the decline and fall of an irresistibly charming young woman. Puccini had recognized since Bayreuth, if not before, that he wasn’t born to grapple with larger-than-life gods and heroes. “I have a feeling for the little things,” he modestly admitted, “but I treat them with love. That’s why Manon appealed to me, because she’s a girl with a heart and nothing more.”
A few years earlier in Paris, Jules Massenet had brought out his Manon and quickly conquered the stages of Europe with it. Ricordi had reservations about his protégé entering into competition, but Puccini had found his “subject” and would not be dissuaded. “Why shouldn’t there be two operas about her?”, he countered his publisher. “A woman like Manon can have more than one lover.” In fact, there had already been at least two compositional lovers: Daniel François-Esprit Auber had also devoted an opera to this adulated object of male obsession. “Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with the powder and the minuets,” Puccini parried. “I feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion.” Fatalistically, he set himself an ultimatum: “If this opera isn’t a success, I’ll look for another occupation.”
Determined to succeed, Puccini set about finding collaborators prepared to fashion a suitable libretto from the multifaceted and psychologically astute Abbé Prevost’s 1731 source. Massenet’s librettists Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille had provided an impressively cogent model, but Puccini needed to avoid an overabundance of similarities and, in particular, circumvent any suspicion of plagiarism. His first choice was Ruggero Leoncavallo, friendly rival, colleague and intermittent neighbour in the Swiss mountain village of Vacallo. Leoncavallo didn’t hold out long against Puccini’s demands, but before long he had pipped him to the post with a successful opera of his own – Pagliacci. Manon Lescaut’s subsequent co-librettists included the playwright Marco Praga and poet Domenico Oliva, finally the writing team of Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica who would later collaborate with Puccini on La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. The publisher Giulio Ricordi, who Puccini jokingly called his “best librettist”, also contributed to the text. Even the composer himself had a hand in it, and he also cannibalized some of his earlier music for the new opera, including the Messa di Gloria, a song, a couple of pieces for strings and the string quartet Crisantemi. By the end, he proclaimed “the libretto is by all and none”. On the title page of the score, published by Ricordi, only his own name appears. The work had taken over two years to complete, continually plagued by difficulties in finding new music for each new instalment of text or, conversely, adapting music already composed to newly delivered words. The result was a patchwork that afterwards gave the impression of being all of a piece.
Ultimately Puccini’s Italian counterpart bore little resemblance to Massenet’s Manon, which served publisher Ricordi well. The same could also be said, however, of its correspondence to the literary source, Abbé Prevost’s masterpiece. But a composer’s resources are different from a storyteller’s. It would be impossible for any setting of Manon to capture the literary model’s complexity in a musical score. On the other hand, the music has something more and different to say about the subject than the narrative. Surely Puccini could have learned from Wagner in Bayreuth how one proceeded in developing an unbroken, quasi-forensic argument to connect the action’s motifs causally with one another. But, he must have said to himself, an Italian composer working in the genre of melodramma hasn’t any need of that. Opera overwhelms through the immediacy of the musical here-and-now and has to depend on attacking the emotions – therein lies its omnipotence, as inexplicable as that of Eros. Wagner the musician would have agreed with him. But Puccini hadn’t Wagner’s command of incontrovertible rhetoric, nor did he set much store by it. As picky as he was in his search for an operatic subject, and as assiduous in the polishing of a libretto’s wording, he regarded the text as conceptual support in conveying the action, which primarily, however, derives its thrust from music, especially singing.
And so there is method in the contrasts drawn between Manon Lescaut’s four acts. On the one hand, there is the backdrop of an artificial, self-contained world: with the light-hearted student song at the beginning, with Geronte’s waxen habitat and its stilted madrigals, minuets and pastorals. Then, in the foreground, there are the menacing outbreaks of unregulated passion, which eruptively assert their claim to dominance. The pain of separation has marked the protagonist Des Grieux of the second act, as he pleads with Manon in deadly earnest and increasingly in the admonishing minor. Their love duet is almost like a Mediterranean reflection of the dialogue from the second act of Wagner’s Tristan. The love story on stage can tacitly accept the dramaturgical gaps because the beseeching gestures of the music ensure continuity and the consistency of all actions. The logically “imperfect” perfection of Manon Lescaut exerts its allure most strongly when the radiance of singing is uppermost.