Online opera guide & synopsis to Puccini’s MANON LESCAUT
“Manon Lescaut” is the opera that made Puccini the star of the operatic firmament. The work overwhelms the listener with motifs and melodies and never was he closer to the music of Richard Wagner than here. With “Donna non vidi mai”, the Intermezzo and the Love Duet, Puccini wrote iconic pieces.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
♪ Act IV
First draft by Marco Prag and Domenico Oliva, later adaptations by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, Giulio Ricordi, Giacomo Puccini, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, based on the novel Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost
The main roles
Manon Lescaut, young woman (soprano) - Lescaut, her brother (baritone) - Des Grieux, student (tenor) - Geronte di Ravoir, royal tax collector (bass)
DG, Mirella Freni, Plàcido Domingo, Kurt Rydl, Renato Bruson under the direction of Giuseppe Sinopoli and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chor of the Royal Opera House, Convent Garden
The initial situation
Puccini’s publisher Ricordi actually wanted Puccini to set the novel “Tosca” to music. Puccini, however, was fascinated by Prévost’s drama “Manon Lescaut” and its title heroine. However, Massenet had crowned this literary model 10 years earlier with a brilliant work and Puccini wanted at all costs to avoid being suspected of creating a plagiarism of this work. In addition, Puccini put himself under pressure to succeed because the premiere of the previous work “Edgar” turned into a fiasco.
The libretto and the difficult birth
After initial hesitation, the playwright Marco Praga took on the role of outlining the work, and Domenico Oliva supplied the verses. Puccini began setting the libretto to music in 1890. He became dissatisfied with the literary draft during the composition process, and even removed a whole scene. Praga then resigned and Ruggiero Leoncavallo (who was originally to write the libretto) took on the task of revising it, but soon abandoned the project due to work overload. Puccini and Ricordi also lent a hand themselves, until finally Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacos made the final adjustments, especially in the Lever scene of the second act and the roll call scene of the Le Havre act. This process took a full 3 years, in the end Praga was no longer willing to give his name and it was agreed at the premiere to publish the work without naming a librettist.
Surprisingly, in retrospect, there is unanimous agreement that the text was well done. In the area of plot, the work has often been criticized. The main criticisms are that the plot makes leaps which makes the story incomprehensible to the listener and that the last act is limited to a death scene.
The difficulties of creating a libretto accompanied Puccini throughout his (artistic) life; he was always at loggerheads with his librettists and several times the collaboration ended in disagreement. What were the reasons for these difficulties in creating a libretto? The main reason may have been that the conventional formal schemes such as scena ed aria, concertati, coro d’introduzione, ouvertura, etc. made it possible for bel canto librettists to set up a libretto in a style and form that was generally shared. Even Verdi resorted to these forms to a large extent. With Richard Wagner and the verismo, everything changed. One wanted to blow up the conventions without being able to develop something new. So inspiration had to be used and with each work the wheel had to be reinvented.
Musical characterization – The influence of Wagner
Puccini was an ardent admirer of Wagner’s work, his favorite opera being “Parsifal”, which he would make a pilgrimage to Bayreuth to see performed 20 years later. In none of his operas was he closer to Wagner than in “Manon Lescaut”. Puccini made no secret of the echoes of Wagner, quoting the Tristan chord several times in Act 2. He also never again went as far in leitmotif technique as he did in this work. None of his later themes was to become as Wagnerian as “Nell’occhio” (see the love duet further below). The great love duet of the second act, which dramatically forms a counterpart to Tristan with its triangular relationship (woman loves young man but is married to an older man), became a veritable Wagner festival.
Musical characterization – Ancient forms
Puccini’s famous statement “Massenet feels the piece as a Frenchman, with the atmosphere of powder and minuets. I will feel it as Italian, with the passion of despair” was meant to deliberately delineate him from the Frenchman. However, Puccini also poured out the powder very generously over his work; the madrigals of the first and second acts and the minuet scene of the second act bear prominent evidence.
Musical characterization – the orchestra
With this work Puccini already made the leap to his style of maturity. The orchestra is rich in color and he emancipated its role; many of the leitmotifs are audible in the orchestra first and it enters into dialogue with the singers on an equal footing. It is particularly ear-catching that Puccini often has the instruments play at the limits of their register and used this (as did his contemporary Mahler) as a stylistic device to portray the extreme emotional states of the protagonists. Especially the melodies of Des Grieux are doubled by the instruments over several octaves.
Musical characterization – leitmotifs
In no other work of Puccini do leitmotifs occupy a more important place. For this reason, you will find the notes of many leitmotifes in the comments to the pieces in this guide. The motifs are brilliantly composed, “Manon Lescaut” was Puccinis creative outburst of melodicism. Puccini’s use of leitmotifs is dramatically deft, and they sometimes take on the function of a commentator. The last act even becomes “an act of reminiscences,” a stylistic element we will encounter in other Puccini operas, where Puccini populates the final act only with motifs from the previous acts.
Musical characterization – the singers
Puccini focused the opera’s plot mainly on the couple’s soul painting, but treated the singing roles of the two protagonists very differently. No other Puccini opera gives the tenor such a presence, with 6 independent arias and additional duets and Des Grieux became Puccini’s longest tenor role. In contrast, Manon has only two arias, but she is more embedded in the plot and her music and isdrawn more sharply in dramatic terms than Des Grieux’, who remains strongly in a victim role and whose main task is to heartbreakingly lament his fate and confess his love to Manon. He is the typical Puccini lover who ultimately becomes the satellite of the woman he has fallen for. Manon’s role is far more nuanced. She undergoes a development that is breathtaking. She evolves from innocent girl to coquettish mistress and passionate lover, then to tragic prisoner and, in the last act, to dying. The colorfulness of the score is further enhanced by the smaller roles of Lampionaio, the dance teacher and Edmondo, who all contribute their own musical forms.
The success of the premiere
February 1, 1893, at the Teatro Reggio in Turin, became a triumph for the composer. The longed-for success arrived and Puccini was unanimously accepted by the public and the critics into the first guard of contemporary composers.
MANON LESCAUT ACT I
Synopsis: Vor einem Gasthaus in Amiens. Studenten, Bürger, junge Mädchen und Soldaten flanieren über den Platz.
The orchestral opening presents a cheerful leitmotif right at the beginning, which is meant to symbolize youthfulness and lightheartedness:
It is followed by a soulful, singing second motif:
These two contrasting motifs play an important role in the coming scenes. Puccini composed an exquisite movement for chorus for this opening scene, which is set for four voices.
Ave, Sera gentile – Levine
Des Grieux hat bisher kein Glück in der Liebe
Synopsis: The students greet Des Grieux and tease him because he has no luck in love. The latter turns to the girls with a mocking serenade.
This inspired arietta “Tra voi, belle brune e bionde” presents Des Grieux as a carefree student.
Tra voi, belle brune e bionde – Pavarotti
Manon appears with the stagecoach
Synopsis: A fanfare announces the arrival of a stagecoach. Manon, her brother Lescaut and Geronte, a royal tenant, emerge from it and stop for the night. Des Grieux sees the young Manon and immediately falls in love with her. When Lescaut goes to the inn to take care of the overnight stay, she is alone for a moment, and Des Grieux approaches her. He learns her name and that she will be leaving the next day to enter a convent on her father’s orders. Des Grieux offers her his help to escape her fate. Manon wants to know his name and promises to return that evening.
As Des Grieux turns to Manon, a beautifully romantic motif resounds in the muted violins:
With this motif, we hear from Des Grieux a throbbing melody that symbolizes his beating heart and becomes the leitmotif of his romantic love for Manon:
Manon, for her part, responds with her leitmotif, a romantic, innocent motif:
Cortese damigella – Domingo / te Kanawa
Des Grieux is in love
Synopsis: Soon they are interrupted, her brother has returned and leads her to her room. Des Grieux remains behind. He thinks rapturously of the beautiful young woman.
The aria that now follows is the most famous piece of this opera and the first famous aria written by Puccini. The ¾ meter gives the piece a lilting, dreamy character. The orchestral accompaniment of the melody is very rich, the tuning of the accompanying instruments with divided strings spans several octaves, emphasizing Des Grieux passion with notes in extreme registers. Des Grieux’s emotional aria returns the romantic motif of the violins that sounded when he addressed Manon.
In the second part, Des Grieux tenderly and rapturously quotes Manon’s motif “Manon Lescaut mi chiamo” over and over again, with which she had introduced herself. It is a surprising effect that makes this aria seem almost like a duet. The third part, “O susurro gentil, deh! Non cessar!” is repeated several times and ends this aria with a passionate high B sung with verve.
We hear this aria in three interpretations:
Björling was able to bring both Des Grieux’s passion and his vulnerability equally to the voice.
Donna non vidi mai – Björling
Backed by a modern recording of an orchestra, we hear Enrico Caruso’s interpretation. His voice is wonderfully soft and flowing. He sings this aria more broadly and dreamily, and it lasts a full 30 seconds longer than Domingo’s interpretation, for example.
Donna non vidi mai – Caruso
Pavarotti’s lyrical voice was closer to Rodolfo than to the more dramatic Des Grieux. Nevertheless, the Donna non vidi mai was one of Pavarotti’s parade arias, to which he was able to give his incomparable blend of warmth and brilliance of voice.
Donna non vidi mai – Pavarotti
Synopsis: Lescaut gets into conversation with his traveling companion Geronte and tells him about the fate of his sister. He has fallen in love with Manon and spontaneously decides to abduct the young woman to Paris and orders a carriage. Des Grieux learns of the tax collector’s plans through the student Edmondo, who had observed the scene. Des Grieux decides to hijack the carriage and escape to Paris with Manon. Lescaut subsequently becomes interested in the students who are playing cards and is distracted. When Manon returns as agreed, Des Grieux declares his love for her.
This scene begins recitativelike and moves into a brief arioso passage. We then hear an upward motif in the flute, which is taken up first by the strings and then by the voices. The temperature rises with the Grieux’s declaration of love, and the duet ends with a passionate unison cadenza by the two voices.
Vedete io son fedele – Domingo / te Kanawa
Manon and Des Grieux flee
Synopsis: Edmondo returns and urges for haste, the carriage is ready and Des Grieux asks Manon to flee. Manon is initially unsettled, but then runs with Des Grieux to the carriage. A little later Geronte realizes the escape and goes to Lescaut. He smiles as he sees through Geronte and remains calm. He says laconically that as soon as they run out of money they will find Manon.
MANON LESCAUT ACT II
Synopsis: In Geronte’s lavish estate near Paris. As predicted by Lescaut, Manon has returned to Geronte after a short time, her desire for luxury winning out over her love for Des Grieux. Her brother joins her and soon realizes that despite the luxury, Manon is unhappy and misses Des Grieux. She is gripped by grief that she left Des Grieux without a kiss, not even a farewell hug.
The short but soulful Arietta of Manon begins with a painful lament of the cellos. In the first part we hear a beautiful p in the phrase “Ed io che m’ero avvezza a una carezza voluttuosa di labbra ardenti” (And I who had grown accustomed to a voluptuous caress or ardent lips and passionate arms). In the second part, we hear oboe and piccolo flute accompany Manon unison, adding luster and nostalgia to the beautiful melody.
In this passage, listen to Mirella Freni, whose 1983 recording of Sinopoli demonstrated the beautiful opulence of her lyrical voice.
In queste trine morbide – Freni
Synopsis: Lescaut erzählt ihr, dass er noch immer Kontakt mit Des Grieux habe und dieser sie suche. Auf sein Anraten suche Des Grieux sein Glück im Spiel, um zu Geld zu kommen und Manon zurückzuholen. Manon ist hingerissen, dass Des Grieux um sie kämpfen will.
With echoes of the aria “Donna non vidi mai,” Lescaut tells of Des Grieux. Manon catches fire again, Lescaut gets musically carried away and Manon ends the duet with an ecstatic high C.
We hear this piece with the great top notes of Caballé.
Poiché tu vuoi saper … Per me tu lotti – Domingo / Caballé
The great Lever-Scene
Synopsis: A group of musicians appear in Manon’s chambers and sing a madrigal for Manon, which Geronte himself had composed for her.
Puccini used for the madrigal a piece for mezzo-soprano and four-part choir that he had composed a few years earlier for a religious work.
At the end, he has the purse intended for the singers bagged by Lescaut, who does not want to sully “art with filthy money.” A lonely horn mockingly comments on this act.
Sulla vetta tu del monte – Croft / Freni / Bartoli
Synopsis: Manon is bored with Geronte’s attentions. And now the dance teacher enters with other people and begins a dance lesson. Geronte has entered and is raptly watching his mistress.
This piece is introduced by a courtly, old-fashioned minuet, to which the orchestra imitates a string quartet, while the visitors pay their respects to Manon. In the second part, we hear dance music accompanying Manon at her dancing lesson. In the third part (when the dancing master calls out “A manca”) we hear a trio whose theme, delivered by the oboe, is going to be taken up again at the end of the opera, with Manon’s last words before her death:
Geronte then gallantly dances a minuet with her, but is soon out of breath. In this scene, the Tristan chord is heard, alluding to the triangular relationship of the three characters and as a signal that Manon will leave Geronte in favor of Des Grieux. Manon then concludes this scene with the baroque pastoral song “L’ora o tirsi”. It is a charming song, enthusiastically accompanied by the chorus of visitors and finished by Manon with a long high C.
It is worth watching this scene in a filmed production. It begins in the following complete recording from Glyndebourne at 49:45
Vi prego signorina – Glyndebourne
Des Grieux appears – the great love duet
Synopsis: They now want to leave for a walk to Paris, but Manon wants to have a moment for herself. When she is alone in the room, she looks in the mirror and is sure that she will be the most beautiful woman, on their trip to Paris. When she hears a noise, she sees Des Grieux to her astonishment who has entered her chambers. He has come to bitterly reproach her for the slight. Manon’s love flares up again and she declares her love for Des Grieux. Des Grieux is again seized by passion and they fall into each other’s arms.
With a cry of surprise, a long, passionate duet begins. Des Grieux accuses her of fleeing, ever more desperately he cries “Taci” (Be silent!) in response to her retorts. Manon begs for forgiveness accompanied by a beautiful motif that we will not hear for the last time:
With this tender motif she breaks Des Grieux’s resistance. With the words “Ah, vieni! colle tue braccia stringi Manon” sung with Des Grieux’s melody of “Donna non vidi mai” she breaks his last resistance. Des Grieux replies with a Wagnerian motif, which will gain an important meaning in this opera, that she is his fate (In the depth of your eyes I read my fate):
With the joint repetition of this motif, accompanied by the jubilant orchestra, this long-strung duet ends in a stormy embrace.
We see and hear this scene beautifully played and sung by Plàcido Domingo and Renata Scotto. Both singers excelled not only in their formidable vocal artistry, but also in their acting. This excerpt, conducted by James Levine, was from the Met’s first live broadcast of an opera to Europe in 1980 and was a sensation. Domingo’s opulent, passionate voice had contributed to it.
Tu, tu amore, tu – Scotto / Domingo
A recording worth seeing and hearing from a recital with Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais.
Tu, tu, amore? Tu? – Opolais / Kaufmann
Synopsis: Geronte bursts into this scene. With a threatening gesture, he turns to the two and leaves the room. Manon knows that the luxury in Geronte’s salon has now come to an end. And now Lescaut appears out of breath and excitedly tells them that Geronte has called the police and wants to have Manon arrested. He urges the two to flee quickly. Manon quickly packs up her jewelry. As they are about to leave the house, they meet the policemen who arrest Manon as a jewelry thief, watched by the laughing Geronte.
As Manon pauses and nostalgically bids farewell to luxury, Des Grieux painfully hisses “Ah! Manon mi tradisce il tuo folle pensier” (Ah Manon, your foolish thoughts betray me: always the same!), in the evil foreboding that this femme fatale will drag him into the abyss. When Lescaut appears, the music becomes frantic. Puccini has fun depicting the escape (ital. “fuga”) with a fugue (ital. “fuga”) and enriching Manon’s voice with Tristan chromatisms.
Lescaut tu qui – Domingo / Freni / Rydl / Gambill / Bruson
MANON LESCAUT ACT III
Synopsis: After her arrest, Manon was sentenced to deportation to a penal colony in Louisiana. She is in prison in Le Havre awaiting the ship that will take her overseas.
Puccini composed the feelings of despair of Manon and des Grieux over the tragic events with this grand intermezzo. It begins with the desolate cantilena of a viola. Gradually other instruments enter and the orchestra leads into the wonderful main theme of the intermezzo:
This theme is being developed over a longer period of time. At the end, the mood of the piece changes and Puccini presents the almost ethereal final motif, the so-called fate motif, which is heavenly colored by the woodwind sound:
Synopsis: Des Grieux and Lescaut have gone to Le Havre and bribed a prison guard there so that Des Grieux can speak to her through the cell bars.
Once again, Des Grieux invokes Manon’s salvation, accompanied only by a religious motif in the violas, borrowed from an earlier string quartet he composed for funeral music. Once again, hope blossoms and the main theme of the intermezzo resounds gloriously as the two touch once more through the bars.
Manon disperato – Olivero / Domingo
Des Grieux manages to get on ship
Synopsis: Lescaut tries to stir up the people, but the attempt fails and the prisoners, mostly prostitutes, are taken to roll call under the gaze of the villagers, where they are registered by the captain of the ship.
As Manon is led to the ship, guarded by the soldiers, Des Grieux rushes to the superior officer and makes a desperate, fruitless appeal to release her. He then rushes to the captain and begs him to let him on the ship. A dramatic motif is heard in the orchestra, which we will encounter again in the fourth movement:
When the captain grants his request and lets him onto the ship as a hired sailor, the fate motif of the intermezzo resounds radiantly at the end of the act.
Presta in filo … No! Pazzo son! – Björling
MANON LESCAUT ACT IV
Synopsis: Des Grieux and Manon are alone in the dreary desert near New Orleans. They are on the run and on the verge of dying of thirst. Manon suffers a fainting spell.
In the opera, we learn nothing about the reason for the flight. From Abbé Prevost’s story, we learn that Des Grieux, upon arriving in New Orleans, had killed the governor’s nephew when he tried to seize Manon. Des Grieux’s despair grows and we hear painful motifs from the past acts.
Manon, senti, amor mio
Manon’s swan song
Synopsis: Manon asks Des Grieux to look for water. Hesitantly, Des Grieux leaves her, knowing that he may not see her alive again. When she is alone, Manon once again ponders her beauty, which led her into the abyss.
Once again the fate motif resounds, this time in a consoling form. It is abruptly interrupted by a ghostly funeral march announcing her death, and Manon begins her feverish vision, “Sola, perduta, abbandonata.” Once again she rears back, not wanting to die.
We hear this dramatic passage sung by Maria Callas. Callas could produce a voice for such scenes with a peculiarly bleak but at the same time rich tone color that got under the skin. Her outcry at the end is simply shattering.
Sola, perduta, abbandonate – Callas
We hear another impressive interpretation from Angela Gheorghiu.
Sola, perduta, abbandonate – Gheorgiu
Synopsis: When Des Grieux returns, he finds Manon still alive, but has to tell her the terrible news that he could not find any water, which means her death sentence. The two say goodbye to each other and Des Grieux falls unconscious next to the dead Manon.
Once again, Manon is overcome by the emotions of love and declares her love for him one last time. In an abrupt change of mood, Des Grieux laments her fate with “Gelo di morte.” But Manon does not want to die with tears, but with kisses. Together with her last words, the ominous theme that sounded in Geronte’s salon in the trio of the minuet is heard:
Fra le tue braccia amore – Domingo / Scotto
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to MANON LESCAUT by Giacomo Puccini