Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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Manon of the Movies: Puccini's Opera in HD, Met 2016

March 15, 2016

Almost two years ago, in July, 2014, I wrote a review-essay of Covent Garden’s version of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut with Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais in a production by Jonathan Kent.  Kent’s production updated the work from the eighteenth century, the era in which Puccini’s opera and the original story by the Abbé Prévost had set it, to contemporary times.  The new Met production, by Richard Eyre, updates it to Paris at the time of the Nazi occupation, and gives it a film noir-inspired look.  Much of what I wrote in 2014 applies to this production as well, so below is a composite review; the new material is bold

The first oddity about Puccini’s first great success, Manon Lescaut (1893), is that so many (seven) librettists worked on the text that the published score did not credit anyone with the words.  Puccini’s publisher, Giulio Ricordi, was against Manon as a subject from the start since Massenet had successfully premiered his own work based on the Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel nine years earlier, and there was even an opera by Auber, which had come out in the 1850’s.  Puccini famously replied, “Why shouldn’t there be two operas about Manon?  A woman like Manon can have more than one lover.”  One of the first librettists to put his hand to the task was Leoncavallo, the composer/librettist of Pagliacci.  Puccini himself worked on it too, but the two men who finally got it together were Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, the pair who would collaborate with Puccini so successfully on La bohème, Madame Butterfly and Tosca.

The story follows the path of Manon Lescaut, who first appears as a young girl on her way to a convent.  She and a student, the Cavalier des Grieux, fall in love and he spirits her off, saving her from the convent, and from being “sold” to a wealthy old lecher, Geronte, by her brother, Lescaut.  After a romantic idyll in a student apartment in Paris, the wealth-loving Manon leaves her student lover for old Geronte, who sets her up in a magnificent apartment.  Soon, however, she takes up with des Grieux again; Geronte surprises them and has her arrested as a prostitute.  She is sent off to a prison colony in Louisiana.  Des Grieux follows her, and she dies on a deserted plain somewhere near New Orleans.  So the influential novel by Prévost has it, and so, roughly, does the Puccini opera.

The libretto-by-committee includes the episode of the death of Manon in Louisiana, which Massenet omitted (she dies before she can board the boat in his Manon), but it did not include an act or scene showing Des Grieux and Manon together as lovers, as Massenet had done.  The librettists wanted to get as far as possible from copying the story as Massenet had told it.  Unfortunately, removing the love-nest scene between des Griux and Manon makes Manon a less sympathetic character, and adding the final act in a “desert in Louisiana” unnecessarily extends the opera.  In fact just what are Manon and Des Grieux doing in a “desert” near New Orleans in the last act? Puccini never explains it, but the Prévost novel does: when Des Grieux and Manon are sent on the prison ship to New Orleans, he kills the son of the Governor when the latter makes a pass at Manon, and so they have to flee the city where the prison boat has taken them.  And what is a “desert” doing in Louisiana?  Well, French America (the Louisiana Purchase) was a huge swath of territory including parts of Texas, New Mexico and Colorado all the way up through the northern Great Plains.  Prévost in 1731 was probably unaware of what he called “Louisiana” looked like.  Puccini certainly knew better, but his libretto committee failed to correct Prévost’s error.

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The new, much touted, Met production by Sir Richard Eyre, updates the story to the 1940’s and takes its inspiration from film noir of the that era.  Manon is a beautiful, statuesque blond like the femme fatales of film noir.  The decor is grey (and ugly), as if we were watching a black and white movie.  A train with a big steam locomotive arrives in Act I, bringing Manon from Arles, not the carriage with horses referred to in the libretto; a steam ship’s prow is evident in Act III to take the women accused of prostitution away to exile.  Too bad that Puccini did not specify a lonely steamship’s horn in the score.  So far, ok: I did not like the set (by Rob Howell) much, but it did not overly interfere with the story or the music.

The attempt to update the story (Eyre said he doesn’t like dramas set in the eighteenth century because the ‘costumes wear the characters rather than characters wearing costumes’) fails at exactly the same points that the earlier CG production failed.  In Act II, set in the Paris apartment where the wealthy old  Geronte has installed Manon as his mistress, a madrigal group arrives to sing a pastoral Geronte has written, and a dancing master arrives to teach Manon how to dance the minuet.  This makes perfect sense if the setting is in the eighteenth century when madrigals and minuets were part of the musical language, but they are ridiculous in a 1940’s context.  Eyre has a tango dancer arrive, and he and Manon practice tango moves (along with explicit sexual touching) to Puccini’s intentionally antique minuet music.  It looks as stupid as it sounds.

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Did anyone else notice that an element of the set in this scene was a column with highly explicit sexual positions engraved thereon: a sort of Trajan’s Column with illustrations Kama Sutra-style instead of military ones?  I would not have noticed it (or been able to see it) if the intermission scenes had not shown closeups as stagehands assembled it.  What a big, carved, phallic, stone column illustrating 242 sexual positions was doing in a Paris boudoir is not a question that I intend to answer.)

The other big problem for a director who wants to update the story is the ending.  Prévost’s novel and Puccini’s opera have Manon shipped off to Louisiana in a prison ship.  The last act takes place in Louisiana.  Historically, prostitutes and criminals were sent from France to French colonies in America and elsewhere in the eighteenth century.  But not even the Nazis shipped women accused of prostitution off to America, and in Kent’s contemporary production for CG, the idea that the French today would imprison and ship sex workers out is even more absurd.  Kent placed his last act on a destroyed freeway overpass in some dystopian future, with a backdrop of what seems to be Monument Valley in Arizona.  Not even the Louisiana Purchase went that far west.  Manon sings her despair (“Sola, perduta, abbandonata”--”Alone, lost, abandoned”) on top of this overpass.  By this time Kent has  given up entirely on a sensible updating, and gone for overly literal symbolism.  For Manon, this is, quite literally, the end of the road.  Eyre gives us what is evidently a bombed out European house or hotel.  It seems that the prison ship that we saw in Act III has foundered somewhere in Europe, and Manon and des Grieux sing out their despair in a destroyed building, among the ruins.

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Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais were to be Puccini’s lovers in the Met version as they had been in London, but Kaufmann withdrew from the production (he has been cancelling a lot recently) and Roberto Alagna was recruited to replace him with short notice in a role he had never sung before.  Alagna is not the matinee idol that he once was, and that Kaufman is now, but he is still very good vocally and trim of figure.  He may not look the student he is supposed to be, but he was pretty athletic bounding over the bomb ruins in the last act.  He sings with his eyes closed a lot of the time (in this and other operas), and he sounded a little strained in the first act arias, “Tra voi belle” and “Donna non vidi mai,” but he warmed up, and was singing ardently by the next act.  Kudos to him for stepping in late in the game and doing so well.  Opolais has this role down; her voice fits Puccini very well, and although I have read that she is sometimes hard to hear in the huge Met, on screen she was fine.  Of course, she is beautiful and a very fine actress.  She will be in the next Met HD showing  (Butterfly) and will branch out into Dvorak (Rusalka) next season for HD viewers.  Through all of her trials and tribulations, her makeup was undisturbed, but that was probably true of the beautiful women in film noir too.  Massimo Cavalletti as Manon’s brother Lescaut was handsome and good vocally and in the acting department.  Brindley Sherratt as a menacing Geronte was also excellent.  In fact, Eyre got fine performances out of everyone, as Kent had done at Covent Garden.

Costumes by Fotini Dimou looked 1940’s, maybe Casablanca.  Fabio Luisi’s conducting was just superb.  He is leaving the Met for the opera in Florence and the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, no doubt because he is tired of waiting for James Levine to retire, something that should have happened at least two years ago.  Luisi was hired with the idea that he would replace Levine as Music Director. How long will the Met drag it out with Levine?  One sign of a great artist (or teacher or what have you) is knowing when it is time to leave.

In sum, Peggy and I got to the theatre early on Wednesday night for the encore performance, bought an overpriced bag of popcorn for dinner and enjoyed the show, even Deborah Voigt in the intermissions (although she was wearing a surprisingly unflattering dress, strange since one of her features was a talk with the Met’s costume mistress).  I didn’t like the production much, but it was not as bad as Kent’s absurdities in London, and the music making—and acting—were top notch.  Puccini always wears his heart on his sleeve, and these artists know how to make it work.

Charles Jernigan