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8.660019-20 - PUCCINI: Manon Lescaut
Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924)
Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca in 1858 into a family with long-established musical traditions extending back at least to the early eighteenth century. It was natural that he should follow this tradition and become a musician, and alter the death of his father, when the boy was five, it was arranged that he should inherit the position of organist at the church of S. Martino, which meanwhile would be held for him by his uncle. He was trained as a chorister and as an organist, and only turned to more ambitious composition at the age of seventeen. A performance of Verdi's opera Aida in Pisa in 1876 inspired operatic aspirations, which could only be pursued adequately at a major musical centre. Four years later he was able to enter the conservatory in Milan, assisted financially by an uncle and by a scholarship. There his teachers were Antonio Bazzini, director of the conservatory from 1882 and now chiefly remembered by other violinists for one attractive addition to their repertoire, and Amilcare Ponchielli, then near the end of his career.
Puccini's first opera was Le Villi, an operatic treatment of a subject better known nowadays from the ballet Giselle by Adam. It failed to win the competition for which it had been entered, but won, instead, a staging, through the agency of Boito, and publication by Ricordi, who commissioned the opera Edgar, produced at La Scala in 1889 to relatively little effect. It was in 1893 that Puccini won his first great success with his version of the Abbe Prevost's novel Manon Lescaut, a work that established him as a possible successor to Verdi. La Boheme followed in 1896, Tosca in 1900 and Madama Butterfly four years later. Puccini's last opera, left unfinished at his death in 1924, was the oriental Turandot.
At the suggestion of the publisher Ricordi a possible opera with a Russian setting had been suggested, alter the failure of Puccini's second opera Edgar, with a libretto by Giacosa, co-author of the texts of three of the later operas. This Puccini rejected in favour of a libretto to be devised by Leoncavallo, not yet known as a composer, a text based on Abbe Prevost's novel Manon Lescaut. Disagreement led to a scenario prepared by Mario Praga, versified by Domenico Oliva, and after further disagreement between the composer and writers Luigi Illica was commissioned to make revisions. The question of authorship presented obvious problems, since Ricordi and Puccini, Leoncavallo, Praga, Oliva, Illica and Giacosa had all had a hand in the work and at the suggestion of the last named no author's name appeared on the published libretto.
The Abbe Prevost, Antoine-Francois Prevost 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 Memoires et aventures d'un homme de qualite, 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 latter first staged in Paris in 1884 and 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. The scene is a large square in Amiens, near the Paris Gate. To the right there is an avenue and to the left an inn, with a porch under which there are various tables for customers. An outside staircase leads to the first floor of the inn. Students, townsfolk, girls and soldiers stroll in the square and in the avenue, while other groups stand chatting or sitting at the tables drinking and gambling.
 Edmondo, a student, sings, half in jest, in praise of the evening, interrupted by the other students. He welcomes the appearance of working-girls and declares he will compose a song for them, echoed by his companions. The girls enter the square, singing of the pleasure and pain of evening, and now the students welcome Des Grieux, a fellow-student, and Edmondo invites him to join them, and when he does not reply, suggests that he is hopelessly in love.  Des Grieux, however, shrugs and claims that he knows nothing of love, tragedy or comedy. Some of the students chat with the girls, while others doubt the claim of Des Grieux, suspecting disappointment in love.  Turning to the girls, he pretends to seek love among them, to the amusement of his friends.  He is congratulated by Edmondo and the other students, who, with the girls and passers-by, join in celebrating the pleasures of the evening.
A postilion's horn is heard and a coach appears from the left.  Everyone crowds round to see who is coming, as the coach comes to a halt in front of the inn. First Lescaut descends, then Geronte, who gallantly assists Manon down. The other travellers descend in their turn. Edmondo and the students remark on Manon's beauty and Lescaut summons the landlord, who welcomes Lescaut and Geronte and ushers them into the inn. Lescaut signs to Manon to wait outside. The crowd disperses and some sit drinking and gambling, while 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, destined for a convent. Des Grieux, fascinated by her beauty, plans to help her escape her fate. Called by her brother, Manon goes inside, promising in the end that she will return after dark to meet Des Grieux.
 Des Grieux sings in praise of the incomparable beauty of Manon and her gentle innocence.  Edmondo and the other students have watched the pair and now approach, ironically congratulating him, to the annoyance of Des Grieux, who leaves them, as they chat with the girls, who echo the earlier words of Des Grieux. Geronte and Lescaut come down the staircase, talking together, and the latter reveals his true opinion of his family's decision to put Manon in a convent. He is interested to learn of the wealth of the tax-farmer Geronte, and accepts the older man's invitation to dinner. Geronte goes back into the inn, and Lescaut watches the young men gambling and willingly agrees to join them. Geronte comes out and seeing Lescaut thus occupied tells the landlord to have a coach and horses ready within the hour behind the inn, for a man and a young girl to go to Paris. He gives the landlord gold.  Edmondo has observed Geronte and guessed his intentions. As Des Grieux comes in, Edmondo tells him what is being plotted and agrees to help him outwit both Lescaut, who is absorbed in the game, and Geronte.
Manon appears on the staircase, looks round and, as she sees Des Grieux, descends to meet him, although she knows it is unwise to be with him, even if this should be their final meeting. Des Grieux declares his love, to which she clearly responds.  Lescaut now rises from the table, half drunk, and calls for more wine, which the students, acting on Edmondo's earlier Intelligence, quickly see that he has, while Manon and Des Grieux draw back. He now tells her of the abduction Geronte has planned, and offers himself in the old man's place. Edmondo tells them that the coach is ready, and Des Grieux urges Manon to escape with him. Edmondo gives Des Grieux a cloak to hide his face and the three hurry into the Inn, while Geronte emerges and, seeing Lescaut busy at the table, looks satisfied with the way things are going.  Now, he thinks, the moment for seduction has arrived, and he calls for supper, watched by Edmondo and some of his friends, amused at what has transpired. Geronte tells the landlord to bid Manon to supper, at which Edmondo steps forward and tells him that Manon has gone. Geronte now tells Lescaut the news and Insists on immediate pursuit. Lescaut, however, realizes that Des Grieux, as a student, will soon run short of money. It will be time enough to follow the pair to Paris the next day, when Geronte will have every chance of success. Meanwhile they can eat.
The second act as originally proposed was set in the relatively modest apartment of Des Grieux. Puccini's version of the opera takes this part of the story for granted, and proceeds to a scene set in the elegant salon of Geronte's house In Paris. At the back are two large French windows; at the right rich curtains hide an alcove and to the left a richly-appointed dressing-table stands near a window. The room is furnished with a sofa, chairs, arm-chairs and a table. Manon is sitting at the dressing-table, with a large white hairdresser's cape, while a hairdresser fusses round her, assisted by two apprentices.  She gives orders to the hairdresser, who hurries to do her bidding. Lescaut comes in, as Manon tries to choose which beauty-patch to wear. Her toilet now completed, the hairdresser removes the cape, revealing Manon richly clothed, and with his assistants leaves the room. Lescaut applauds her appearance and reminds her how he had saved her from life with an impoverished student, although Des Grieux was a good fellow. Manon, who had left her lover without even a farewell kiss, is anxious for news of him.  In all her finery, she misses the simpler life with her young lover.  Lescaut tells her that Des Grieux has now turned to gambling, with his help; and has made money, the way to Manon's heart. She remembers her former life with her lover, while from time to time admiring herself in the glass, asking Lescaut if he approves of her appearance.  People enter, carrying sheets of music, ready to perform a madrigal by Geronte.  Manon gives her brother a purse, bidding him pay the musicians off. Friends of Geronte can be seen through the French windows entering the house to be received by their host, and now a quartet of musicians come in and start to tune their instruments, but Manon is bored. She stands up and goes back to meet Geronte, who comes into the room with a dancing-master to start a lesson in the minuet.  Admired by Geronte and his guests, gentlemen and priests, Manon dances, instructed by the dancing-master. The lesson over, Geronte suggests that it is time to go out. The dancing-master and musicians go out, as the guests too take their leave and Geronte goes to order a sedan-chair.  Manon takes up a
hand-mirror and admires herself. Hearing someone approach, she asks if the chair is ready, but it is Des Grieux who enters. She asks if he can still love her, but he remains bitter at her faithlessness, while she begs his forgiveness, as their old love lives again and she falls into his arms.
 At this point Geronte comes in and addresses the couple ironically, reproaching Manon for her ingratitude. She hands him her mirror and tells him to look at himself. He is deeply offended and 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. Manon again seeks forgiveness and swears to be true to her young lover.  Lescaut hurries in breathlessly and tells them 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, while Des Grieux urges haste. Lescaut in desperation pushes the pair into the alcove, but Manon runs out again, as the constables enter, followed by Geronte with soldiers. He laughs at her, as she drops some of her jewels, and Lescaut prudently takes the sword of Des Grieux, preventing him from arrest and holding him back, as the constables drag Manon away.
 Intermezzo covers the journey of the imprisoned Manon to Le Havre, where she is to be transported, condemned, the music reflecting the despair of Des Grieux, who has done all he can to secure her release.
The scene is set in a square near the harbour in Le Havre, the harbour itself can be seen in the background and at the left a corner of the barracks. At the front is a barred window and to the side, facing the square, a closed gate, guarded by a sentry. Part of a war-ship can be seen in the harbour and to the right a house and a narrow street. On the corner an oil-lamp flickers. Dawn is breaking.  Des Grieux and Lescaut are watching, the latter claiming that he has bribed the sentry and that Manon will soon be free. A sergeant leads a group of soldiers out, as the guard changes, and Lescaut points out the man he has bribed. He signals to the man, who goes away and then taps on the iron bars of the ground-floor window, as Des Grieux watches anxiously. Manon appears and Des Grieux seizes her hand, while Lescaut leaves the couple together.  A lamp-lighter comes in, singing his song, while Des Grieux tells Manon how her escape has been planned and what she must do. She throws him a kiss and retires from the window. A shot is heard in the distance and Des Grieux, startled, runs to the narrow street.  Voices are heard raising the alarm, and Lescaut rushes in, exhorting Des Grieux to save himself. Lescaut seeks to restrain Des Grieux, who has drawn his sword, and Manon too, coming to the window, tells him to make his escape. People come running from all sides, asking each other what has happened. 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. They stop in front of the gate. The sergeant orders the crowd back and from the ship in the harbour come the captain and a group of marines.  The sergeant now calls the roll of prisoners, and as each one is called, she moves to join the marines, while the captain marks the name off on his list. Lescaut endeavours to arouse the sympathy of the watching townspeople for Manon, seduced and betrayed by an old man, who took her from her young lover. Des Grieux manages to stand near Manon and their hands meet. She bids him farewill, to his despair.  The sergeant orders the women and their guards away and pulls Manon away from Des Grieux, who threatens him, with the approval of the onlookers. He breaks down in tears and begs the captain, who has intervened, to allow him to sail with his beloved Manon, even as a cabin boy. The prisoners have now been taken onto the ship and the captain, moved by the pleas of Des Grieux, grants his request. Des Grieux, in joy, kisses his hand, while 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. The scene is an endless plain on the borders of New Orleans. The country is bare and undulating, the horizon far distant. Clouds cover the sky, as evening falls. Manon and Des Grieux come slowly forward. They are poorly dressed and seem tired out. Manon is pale and exhausted and leans on Des Grieux who wearily supports her.  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 laying her on rising ground, but still in doubt and despair, he resolves to do what he can to bring help, even in this wilderness.  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.
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