The online opera guide to MANON
Massenet’s Manon is one of the absolute highlights of French opera. The role of Manon is one of the most impressive role portraits in opera literature. Experience the great wealth of ideas Massenet has composed in it.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I (Inn Scene)
♪ Act II (Apartment Scene)
♪ Act III (Promenade-Scene, Convent Scene)
♪ Act IV (Casino Scene)
♪ Act V (Death Scene)
♪ En fermant les yeux (Dream aria)
♪ Obéissons… Profitons de la jeunesse (Gavotte)
Roles and Synopsis
Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille, based on the novel Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost.
The main roles
Manon, Young Woman (soprano) - Lescaut, Cousin of Manon (baritone) - Des Grieux, Chevalier from a Noble Family (baritone) - Des Grieux, Count and Father of the Chevalier Des Grieux (bass) - Guillot, Wealthy Man (tenor) - De Brétigny, Wealthy Nobleman (baritone)
EMI, Victoria De Los Angeles, Henry Legay and Michel Dens conducted by Pierre Monteux and the chorus and orchestra of the Opéra comique of Paris or EMI, Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna and José van Dam conducted by Antonio Pappano and the chorus and orchestre de la monnaie.
The model for Manon was the novel “Manon Lescaut” by Abbé Prévost. It is worth taking a brief look at the life of the author. Coming from a wealthy family, the 14-year-old Antoine fell out with his father after the early death of his mother and fled in 1711, first to military service, then to a Jesuit college, then rejoined the military and took part in the Franco-Spanish War. He subsequently deserted and took refuge in a monastery, where he joined the Benedictine Order and received the lower orders. Even in the order, his life was erratic; among other things, he was attacked for his writing, and he deposed from the order at the age of 30. He was then sought by the police and fled through several European countries. In The Hague he met the noble courtesan Lenki Eckhardt, who inspired him to write Manon. He maintained a lavish lifestyle with her, which led them to London, where Prévost was imprisoned for bill fraud. In short, there is much that is autobiographical about the illustrious life of Abbé Prévost in the story of Manon Lescaut.
The libretto of “Manon” is very close to the original. Of the three known operas based on the novel (Massenet, Puccini, Auber), Massenet’s story stayed closest to the original, only the ending was changed.
With Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille, Massenet had two brilliant and experienced librettists at his disposal. The libretto deserves great praise; the sequence of scenes and acts skillfully alternates between intimate scenes and impressive tableaux. The librettists refrained from digressions and kept the plot lean, each act aiming at a “coup-de-théâtre,” which Massenet effectively set to music.
Massenet wrote “Manon” for the Paris “Opéra Comique” and used its stylistic devices; for example, three grisettes (the burlesque girlfriends of Guillot and De Brétigny) appear. The use of obsolete musical forms such as the courtly gavotte or the minuet, which have a caricaturing effect, can also be traced back to practices of the theater.
Massenet also used many stylistic devices of the Grand Opéra in Manon. For example, a ballet is used, it consists of five acts with independent sets, and it has a tragic ending.
Music and leitmotifs
Massenet’s compositional style is based on tender, flowing melodies. The music is always poetic and flowery. The leitmotifs occupy an important position. He was an ardent Wagner admirer, but without thoughtlessly using Wagner’s techniques. He used relatively many leitmotifs, especially for the character of Manon six leitmotifs can be found to describe the mix of her character between melancholy and cheerfulness and to musically shape the change of her fate in the five acts. You will find some musical examples of the leitmotifs in the music samples.
The role of Manon
The task of the opera’s protagonist is daunting. Manon is the only female protagonist of this opera, (almost) everything revolves around her. She sings five arias, many duets and ensemble scenes.
The diversity of the portrayal presents the leading lady with a difficult task. Although Manon is a simple person in the positive sense, she has to show a different facet in each act. In the first act, we get to know a young, naive woman from the countryside. In the second act, she is the romantic lover who is lured by the fashionable life and calculatingly dumps her lover. In the third act she is the frivolous mistress and in the fourth act the seductress. Finally, in the last act, she must believably portray the metamorphosis into the repentant in the death scene.
This tremendous stage presence – she is on stage almost non-stop – and diversity of characters in the five acts is unique in opera literature and is matched only by Violetta in Traviata.
Massenet’s first world success
The premiere took place on January 19, 1884 at the Opéra Comique in Paris. The success of the first performances was mixed. Marie Heilbronn, the first Manon received ovations and she sang the role about 80 times. Massenet was accused of Wagnerism, which was still a dirty word in France in the 1880s. The work was quickly taken up by many theaters and ten years later was also revived at the Opéra comique with great success. The opera became a global success and has since been performed several 1,000 times at the Opéra Comique alone.
The overture quotes a number of leitmotifs: right at the beginning we hear the radiant theme of the gavotte, which we will hear in Act 3. It symbolizes Manon’s striving for a life of luxury:
Second, we hear the military motif that characterizes the life of her brother who will receive her:
Prélude – Pappano
Je suis encore étourdie – a look at Massenet’s composition style
Synopsis: The two wealthy gentlemen Guillot and von Brétigny enjoy themselves in an inn with three young friends. Lescaut is also in the inn. He is expecting a stagecoach in which his cousin Manon is sitting. He has been instructed by her family to escort Manon to a monastery. The stagecoach arrives and Lescaut greets his 15-year-old cousin Manon. Massenet shows Manon in “Je suis encore étourdie” as a young woman who is impressed by the metropolitan environment and its charms.
Massenet shows Manon in “Je suis encore étourdie” as a young woman impressed by the metropolitan environment and its charms. Massenet wrote “Avec charme et émotion” in the original libretto at the first words of this aria. In French, the word “charm” has a broader meaning than in English and German. The singer must give this performance of the 15-year-old Manon a youthful sex appeal, “a childlike coquetry, of an innocence broken even before the first inkling” (Kesting). We will encounter the theme of this aria repeatedly, it is the motif of the naive, innocent Manon:
Before we listen to this passage, it is worthwhile to immerse ourselves in a special feature of Massenet’s composition style. “Massenet had his very own compositional technique – learning text passages by heart and repeating them endlessly until he came up with the perfect melody for the individual rhythm of each phrase. One needs to listen to the famous “Je suis encore tout étourdie” (I am still completely dazed) in order to appreciate how freely the melody flows. Some lines, such as the first, are sung only with breathless or sagging pauses (“Je suis … en-core… tout étour-die… e), others are rushed through as quickly as possible, and still others offer the opportunity for a long lasting tone.” (Abbate / Parker)
Je suis encore étourdie – Gheorghiu
Synopsis: The next scene shows us a contemplative Manon. She watches the three girlfriends having fun with the two rich men and dreams for a short time of leading such a life . But this is only a chimera, her family has decided that she has to live in a monastery.
Restons ici… Voyons, Manon, plus de chimeres!
Synopsis: The Grieux appears. He addresses Manon and falls immortally in love at the first blink of her eye.
The solo violin tenderly carries the passion motif, which is heard alternately in all voice groups during the duet, until it finally reaches the singers’ voices, where it fades away romantically:
Je sais votre nom – Gheorghiu / Alagna
Synopsis: Only a few minutes pass and the two decided to leave for Paris.
Accompanied by the passion motif, the two decide to go their separate ways.
Listen to this beautiful duet with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon.
Nous vivrons à Paris – Netrebko / Villazon
Massenet assigns an important role to the orchestra. Each act is introduced by orchestral music. In the beautiful prelude to the second act, you hear two main leitmotifs that accompany us throughout the work. The profound motif of Des Grieux, played by the low strings, meets the teasing, light-footed motif of Manon, played by the violins.
At the beginning we hear the leitmotif of Des Grieux:
Then the playful, flirtatious motif of Manon:
Prélude 2ème acte – Lopez-Cobos
The Letter Scene
Synopsis: Manon and Des Grieux live in a small apartment in Paris. Des Grieux wrote a letter to his father asking for his permission to marry.
On l’appelle Manon – Gheorghiu / Alagna
Manon’s famous farewell aria – Adieu notre petite table
Synopsis: Somebody knocks on the door. Manon’s cousin Lescaut, accompanied by Brétigny, has found them. While Lescaut argues with Des Grieux, Brétigny takes Manon aside and tells her that Des Grieux’s father would not accept a marriage, and that he will abduct his son this evening. De Brétigny offers her as an alternative a life in luxury. Des Grieux goes to the post office to post the letter to his father. Manon is in deep thoughts. Too seductive is De Brétigny’s offer of a life like … a queen. Her decision has been made. Overwhelmed by nostalgical feelings she says goodbye to her small apartment.
“Adieu notre petite table” is one of Manon’s famous arias. She describes her inner conflict between her honest love for Des Grieux and her desire for a glamorous future. In this scene, Manon goes through a roller coaster of emotions. At the beginning she is seized by her love for Des Grieux (mon pauvre chevalier… j’aime), then by uncertainty (je ne suis digne de lui). But then she is incited by the promise of a life in the luxury of a big city and the aria reaches its climax on the word “beauté” in a high B. The motif of Brétigny appears and for a few moments she indulges in the sweet anticipation of her bright future. But soon she is overwhelmed by melancholic feelings of farewell (Adieu notre petite table). She realizes that she buys her queen’s dream dearly, namely with the loss of her love.
Wide passages of this aria are written in piano. They are sincere words whose feelings are repeatedly reflected in the orchestra. The Spanish singer Victoria de los Angeles (1923-2005) is considered by many experts to be the best interpreter of the role of Manon. Kesting explains this as follows: “Victoria de los Angeles was the singer of intimate tones for all that is lyrical and quiet in music. Her unique and unmistakable timbre lay in a coat of velvet. Stratton speaks of “a voice for tender half-shade and gentle allusion”. These are the ideal conditions for this intimate key scene of Manon. Let’s listen to Victoria de los Angeles in a live recording that exemplarily documents what has been said.
Allons! … Adieu, notre petite table (1) – de los Angeles
Let us listen to this aria in another wonderful interpretations. Maria Callas never sang Manon in the opera house. Listen to her in a concert excerpt.
Allons! … Adieu, notre petite table – Callas
Massenet’s great dream aria
Synopsis: The visitor leave the apartment and Des Grieux dreams of a life for two. He dreams of a place where he and Manon can be happy.
When I close my eyes I see far away a modest retreat,
a little cottage lost in the middle of the woods!
Under the quiet shade,
the clear and joyous streams,
in which the leaves are reflected,
sing with the birds!
Oh no, everything there is sad and melancholy,
because one thing is missing
Manon ought to be present!
The dream aria is one of the most famous arias of the standard tenor repertoire. It requires an incredible finesse and precision, not only in pitch, but also in resonance and breath. Massenet has ennobled this delicate piano aria with an enchanting orchestral accompaniment. “The orchestral accompaniment captivates with its high iridescent muted violins, to which Massenet adds even more brightness with flute and oboe. It is composed without basses and the tenor melody is also reserved, giving the impression that the aria can take off at any moment.” (Abbate).
Listen to this aria in a simply great interpretation by Jussi Björling. Note the wonderful and expressive ritardando at about 2:00 or the breathtaking diminuendo at the end.
En fermant les yeux (1) – Björling
Björling is considered by many to be the best Verdi tenor of the 20th century. Unfortunately, he never sang Manon on stage.
Next you’ll hear a recording with a tenor from our day. Jonas Kaufmann, a great Werther, has also sung Manon with great success. He gives the aria a melancholic character with his dark baritonal tenor voice.
En fermant les yeux (2) – Kaufmann
Two outstanding recordings from the good old days
Interested listeners will find the dream aria in two other versions. They are great sound testimonies of two tenors of the golden era.
Let’s start with the legendary 1902 recording of Enrico Caruso. Caruso recorded his very first eight pieces for the record in Milan. It meant the start of a great record career. This aria belongs to this first series. He recorded the piece under the Italian title “chiudi gli occhi” with piano accompaniment. A special treat: he ennobled the piece with one of his famous Caruso sobs.
En fermant les yeux (3) – Caruso
If you want to hear more about the legendary Caruso recordings then I recommend a podcast with a Caruso anecdote. (https://soundcloud.com/user-259769732/anecdote-011-how-enrico-caruso-made-the-most-expensive-record-in-history-from-a-failed-marriage; or select the Itunes Podcast “Anecdotes of the Opera World” episode 11)
Finally, I recommend that you listen to this piece in Julius Patzak’s interpretation. Somewhat slower in tempo and with great vocal intensity; goose skin guaranteed. Kesting describes Patzak’s voice as follows: “He possessed a small, slightly nasally tinted voice of a totally unmistakable timbre – not beautiful, but expressive, sensual and painfully beautiful. She is a voice that penetrates into the depths of the heart.”
En fermant yes yeux (4) – Patzak
Synopsis: But Manon dreams of a glamorous life in luxury and does not warn Des Grieux. The unsuspecting Des Grieux is betrayed by his lover and brought to his father by force in the evening.
Massenets famous Gavotte
Synopsis: It’s Sunday afternoon on the cours-de-reine, the great promenade of Paris’. Manon is happy to bei the centre of society:
on baise ma main
car par la beauté je suis la reine
they bow down
they kiss my hand
by my beauty I am the queen
She sings with vitality and joy the famous Gavotte with the high D flat at the end of the first part. Massenet does not draw the image of an arrogant bitch, but a young happy woman. She first sings the word “reine” (queen) in piano, she can hardly believe herself that she is the admired centre of the haute volée. Only in the second attempt she sings the word “reine” in the forte. There is a talking anecdote about Massenet’s idea of Manon: on his daily walk he passed a flower girl with the blue, innocent eyes of a child. He later said that this woman had been an inspiration to him for the Manon.
Listen to Victoria de los Angeles in an incredibly virtuoso and at the same time calm and expressive interpretation of this piece.
Obéissons… Profitons de la jeunesse (1) – de los Angeles
The aria is very tricky and has difficult coloraturas. Pay particular attention to the minute before the high D flat, from 1:15.
Listen to another interpretation by the Russian opera star Anna Netrebko. She sings the beautiful high Netrebko-tones but falls in agility behind Victoria de los Angeles (compare for example the trills before the high D flat).
Obéissons… Profitons de la jeunesse (2) – Netrebko
Manon’s sudden change of heart
Synopsis: On a Sunday promenade, Manon’s rich lover even hires the ballet to celebrate the graceful Manon. Grieux’s father is also invited to this society, and he tells Manon that his son is ordained a priest. Manon is suddenly inflamed again and sets off for the seminary.
In the seminary
Synopsis: In Saint Sulpice the parish meets in the church. It praises the eloquence of Des Grieux.
Quelle éloquence – Lopez-Cobos
Ah fuyez douce images – Massenet’s next stroke of genius
Synopsis: In the seminary, Des Grieux has already acquired the reputation of a gifted preacher. He does not let his father dissuade him from dedicating his life to God. But Des Grieux is tormented by pictures from the past, thoughts of Manon, which he tries in vain to scare away in the aria “Je suis seul… ah fuyez douce images”.
It is the second great aria Massenet wrote in Manon for the tenor. Like the Dram aria, this piece is an introspective reflection of his emotional world. We hear four great recordings of this soul painting.
We hear these arias in different versions.
We start with Nicolai Gedda (1925-1987). He was above all, a tenor highly appreciated by connoisseurs. He was not a tenor with a strong an penetrating voice, but he excelled with his vocal artistry and the voice’s extraordinary range. For example, he was the first choice for the extremely high tenor role of Arnoldo in Rossini’s William Tell.
Let’s hear this aria from Gedda. Kesting comments: “He always succeeds in combining vocal elegance with absolute credibility, as in the monastic scene: he creates the recitative as a monologue of a confused young man who flees from his fatal love to the monastery. In the aria Des Grieux (and with him the listener) is overwhelmed by the feelings for Manon, in the parlando middle section Gedda defeats himself once more, while organ chords sound – only to be carried away again with masterfully designed crescendo.”
Je suis seul… ah fuyez douce images (1) – Gedda
The next recording is by Jonas Kaufmann. It comes from his CD from 2007 (Romantic Arias), which has received excellent reviews. The greatest praise (which was quoted again and again) came from the highly respected critic John Steane in the magazine Gramophon, who saw Jonas Kaufmann as the candidate for the future top tenor . Especially the Manon excerpts stood out.
Also the French experts were full of praise, the excellent French diction of the German was noted appreciatively.
Je suis seul… ah fuyez douce images (2) – Kaufmann
Next we hear again Jussi Björling in another captivating interpretation.
Je suis seul… ah fuyez douce images (3) – Björling
Finally, I would like to add Tito Schipa to the playlist. Des Grieux was one of his favourite roles. As always, Schipa captivates with his elegant voice, which expresses pain unparallelled by other singer. Listen to a recording from the thirties.
Je suis seul… ah fuyez douce images (4) – Schipa
Manon’s seduction of the aspiring priest
Synopsis: Then Manon appears, asks him for forgiveness and Des Grieux cannot resist her tenderness – Is it not the same voice, the same tender hand that once enchanted him?
Massenet uses all the musical registers of the female art of seduction in this scene: great leaps of tone to express her emotions, interplay of her words with a delicate solo violin, languorous, almost breathed words of Manon.
See this haunting scene in a television version with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon.
N’est-ce plus les mains (1) – Netrebko / Villazon
And in a second interpretation with an outstanding los Angeles. Commenting on this recording, Kesting said: “She succeeds in expressing the non-authenticity of the sensations portrayed, the suppressed sensuality which gives Massenet’s music its hysterical note.
N’est-ce plus les mains (2) – los Angeles / Haye
You will hear a third interpretation by Angela Gheorghiu. Perhaps the version with the greatest art of seduction. Excellent.
N’est-ce plus les mains (3) – Gheorgiu / Alagna
Synopsis: Des Grieux and Manon live together. Her desire for luxury devours large sums of money. Soon Grieux has squandered his inheritance. Out of desperation, Des Grieux seeks his fortune in the game. He plays against Guillot in the casino.
Manon fiebert im Glücksspiel mit, der Wunsch nach Gold und Luxus erhitzt sie.
Faites vos jeux, Messieurs … Ce bruit de l’or – Gheorgiu
Synopsis: Guillot loses a lot of money and accuses Des Grieux of cheating. The policemen, instructed by Des Grieux’s father, arrest Des Grieux and release him soon after. They have their eyes on Manon. She is imprisoned as an accomplice.
Synopsis: Des Grieux and Lescaut have learned that Manon has been sentenced to overseas deportation. They want to free her. With his last money Lescaut bribes a sergeant and the fatally ill Manon is released for a short time. Manon repents of her deeds and asks Des Grieux for forgiveness. She remembers their time of love and tenderness.
She dies in the arms of Des Grieux with the words «Et c’est là l’histoire de Manon Lescaut“.
Listen to the finale with Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko, with a beautiful final picture, absolutely watch to the end.
Ah! des Grieux!.. O Manon! – Netrebko / Villazon
EMI, Victoria De Los Angeles, Henry Legay under the direction of Pierre Monteux and the Choir and Orchestra of the Paris Opera.
EMI, Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna under the direction of Antonio Pappano and the Choir and Orchestra de la monnaie.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to MANON by Jules Massenet.