Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): Manon Lescaut (Highlights)
Giacomo Puccini's first great success came in 1893 with his operatic version of the Abb� Pr�vost's novel Manon Lescaut, a work that established him as a possible successor to Verdi. There had been disagreements over the libretto, which in the end involved a number of writers, whose names did not appear on the published text.
The Abb� Pr�vost, Antoine-Fran�ois Pr�vost d'Exiles, was born in 1697 and was by turns a Jesuit novice, a soldier, a Benedictine monk and a convert to Protestantism. He was forced to seek exile from his native France in 1728 and lived until 1734 in England and Holland, undergoing a period of imprisonment in the former country for alleged forgery .He was allowed to return to France as a Benedictine monk and was briefly in the service of the Prince de Conti as chaplain until compelled to escape abroad again when he was accused of writing various satirical pamphlets. He returned to France in 1742 and continued until his death in 1763 as a writer, leading a life complicated by mistresses and by debt. His works included translations of Richardson's novels Pamela and Clarissa Harlowe and the seven volumes of M�moires et aventures d'un homme de qualit�, written during his early exile. In the seventh volume the gentleman of quality of the title receives the confidences of the Chevalier des Grieux, a weak-willed hero who resembles in many ways the author. This classical novel is in its elevation of sensibility and in the strength of the passions depicted a precursor of Romanticism. It served as the inspiration of earlier operas by Auber and by Massenet, the second of whose work was first staged in Paris in 1884, bearing the simple title Manon.
Puccini's version of Manon Lescaut was first mounted at the Teatro Regio in Turin on 1st February 1893, the year and month of the first production of Verdi's Falstaff in Milan. The opera proved an immediate success. It was staged at Covent Garden and at the Grand Opera House of Philadelphia the following year. There were subsequent revisions and temporary changes, with alterations in orchestration suggested by Toscanini for performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, these last incorporated in the later published score. The libretto itself, effective enough, in spite of its multiple authorship, offers certain problems, not least in the omission of the original second act suggested by Praga and Oliva and set in the Paris apartment of Des Grieux, although what has happened in the interval between the present first and second acts is quickly apparent.
The opera is set in the second half of the eighteenth century. Outside an inn near the Paris Gate in Amiens townspeople, young and old, take the evening air. Following a short introduction,  the girls are eyed by a group of students,  among them the Chevalier des Grieux, who is persuaded by his friends to pretend to flirt with them. A coach approaches, halting in front of the inn. Lescaut and the elderly Geronte are welcomed into the inn and Lescaut signs to his sister Manon to wait outside.  Des Grieux, struck by Manon's beauty, addresses her, asking her name. She tells him that she is Manon Lescaut and that the next day she will leave for a convent. Des Grieux seeks to help her escape her fate. Called by her brother, Manon goes inside, finally promising that she will return after dark to meet Des Grieux,  who sings now in praise of her incomparable beauty and gentle innocence. While Lescaut comes out and joins the young men gambling at the inn tables, Geronte tells the landlord to order a coach and horses, to be ready within the hour behind the inn, for a man and a young girl to go to Paris. Geronte has been overheard by Edmondo, a fellow-student of Des Grieux, who tells the latter what is being plotted and agrees to help him outwit both Lescaut, now absorbed in the game, and Geronte.  Manon comes from the inn, and, seeing Des Grieux, joins him, although she knows it is unwise. Des Grieux declares his love, to which she clearly responds. He tells Manon of Geronte's plan to abduct her and offers himself in the old man's place and they seize their opportunity to elope together. Lescaut is left to dissuade Geronte from immediate pursuit, on the grounds that Des Grieux will soon be out of money and then Geronte may have his way.
By the opening of the second act matters have resolved themselves. Manon has abandoned Des Grieux and given Way to Geronte.  In the luxury of a richly decorated salon in Geronte's house in Paris, she enjoys every luxury, but misses her young lover, now rich enough, her brother tells her, as a result of his gambling.  She takes up a hand-mirror and admires herself. Hearing someone approach, she asks if the sedan-chair that Geronte had gone to order is ready, but it is Des Grieux who enters. She asks if he can still love her, but he retmains bitter at her faithlessness, while she begs his forgiveness, as their old love is revived and she falls into his arms. At this point Geronte returns and reproaches Manon for her ingratitude. She hands him her mirror and tells him to look at himself. Offended, he goes out, threatening that they will meet again soon.  Des Grieux urges Manon to escape with him at once, but she hesitates, reluctant to leave the luxury in which she has lived with Geronte, while he laments his own degradation as a gambler. She again seeks forgiveness and swears to be true to her young lover. At this moment Lescaut hurries in with the news that Geronte has denounced Manon and that constables are on the way to seize her. There is no time to be lost, but Manon is anxious to take her jewels with her. The delay is fatal and Manon is arrested, while Lescaut restrains Des Grieux from violence.
 An Intermezzo covers the journey of the imprisoned Manon to Le Havre, from where she is condemned to transportation. The music reflects the despair of Des Grieux, who has done all he can to secure her release.
 The third act is set near the harbour in Le Havre. Dawn is breaking and Des Grieux and Lescaut are watching outside the prison, hoping for Manon's escape, as Lescaut has arranged. Manon appears behind the bars of a prison window and Des Grieux seizes her hand, while Lescaut leaves the couple together. He tells how they plan to rescue her, but in the event the plot goes awry. There is a roll of drums and the door of the barracks opens. A sergeant and soldiers come out, and with them a group of chained women, now handed over to the ship's captain for transportation.  The sergeant orders the women and their guards away and pulls Manon away from Des Grieux. Breaking down in tears, he begs the captain to allow him to sail with his beloved Manon, even as a cabin boy, and his plea is granted. Manon turns and, guessing what has happened, shows her own delight. She opens her arms to him, as Des Grieux runs to her. Lescaut shakes his head and walks away.
The final act is set in America. In the wilderness near New Orleans clouds cover the sky, as evening falls. Manon and Des Grieux are seen, dishevelled and exhaused.  He tells her to lean all her weight on him, as the road comes to an end, but she can go no further. She faints and Des Grieux tries desperately to revive her. Coming to, she tells him to leave her and seek help and he resolves to do what he can.  Alone, Manon realises death is near.  Des Grieux returns and she falls into his arms, assuring him again and again of her love. Her faults will be forgotten but her love will never die, she tells him, her last words, leaving Des Grieux to fall grief-stricken on her body.
ReviewsOpera amateurs may not have heard of some of the great composers' lesser-known works and may not want to jump in to one with both feet, wondering what on earth they are likely to get. Naxos has taken one such piece - Puccini's Manon Lescaut - and given listeners a 'taster', albeit a generous one of just over an hour. If you like what you hear, you can buy the whole work... - Worcester Evening News, August 2000