Saturday, March 23, 2013

Massenet's "comique" treatment of the tragedy of Manon, an immoral woman

I’m a little big mad at the Kennedy Center for the mess on their website the week “Mormon” went on sale, when I had to go through a third party (stumbling) to get symphony concert tickets at all. So, when, this week, Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”  was featured for three performances in the Opera House, I looked at options.  I treated myself instead to an Arthaus DVD of a 2001 performance of “Manon” by Jules Massenet (premiered about nine years earlier, in 1884), by the Paris opera with Jesus Lopez-Cobos, and with Renee Flemming as Manon Lescaut and Marcelo Alvarez as Le Chavalier Des Grieux.

The set is in 2 DCD’s (it wasn’t Blu-Ray, but looks sharp anyway); but 164 minutes could fit onto one.
Technically, the opera is known as an “opera comique” despite the tragedy and moralizing of the interesting story, based on a novel  “The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut” by L’Abbe Provost (1731). I don't remember reading any of this in high school French (I do remember Victor Hugo).  

The love story, or course, pairs Manon and des Grieux, through several stages:  first they live together in poverty (she had been intended for a convent).  Later, Des Grieux considers being a priest but his family will give him an inheritance if he will marry and have children.  (Where have we debated that before?  The “natural family” anyone?)  Manon returns to his life, they elope, and waste their wealth, partly through gambling (a big theme in the opera).  Manon is considered an immoral woman and will be deported to a penal colony, but dies of exhaustion in her lover’s arms at the end.

Despite the “tragedy”, the opera is technically called an “opera comique”.  The music seems light in the beginning, but gradually grows more intense in the many arias and choruses, especially in the festivals in the long “scherzo” Act 3.  (The Opera is in 5 Acts (originally 4), and 6 scenes.)  The major tonalities are B-fat, E-flat, and D-Minor.  (I could check them on the Casio.)  Every act ends in a major fortissimo.  Even at the end, when Manon dies, the music gives us triumph in B-flat major.  Is that because it’s comedy?  (I haven’t heard the Pucinni , except for the passionate, chromatic intermezzo).  But Tosca ends on a loud minor chord with tragedy, and Turandot, completed by Alsonso with a rather Mahlerian touch, ends in a triumphant D Major, one of the most magnificent in all of grand opera.)   Massent,  to my ear, sounds a little more spontaneous but less chromatic than Puccini.  The opera has several  famous themes;  a minor-keyed theme in Act IV appears in a piano reduction in one of John Thompson’s piano courses.
The novel has been filmed a few times, but not since 1970.  The original novel is set partly in Louisiana, where Manon dies at the end of exposure in the bayou  after a possible hurricane (at a time when the bayous were undisturbed and offered some protection) .  Given the strength of the film business in Louisiana, it sounds like a no-brainer that someone will want to film the original novel again, and even play on the idea of the environmental irony. 

Could the novel deserve a modern operatic setting?  Maybe with a post-Katrina New Orleans and Las Vegas thrown in?  (Or maybe the casinos in Mississippi are good enough; imagine another hurricane.)  It’s pretty easy to imagine one of a few young composers today attempting it.  I won’t name names here.  But I would expect to see it. It probably will end quietly after Manon expires.  

It takes an unusual dedication to become an opera singer.  People start out in voice and become pop stars; or they start out in piano and become movie producers.   Opera would be too unifocal a life for most artists.  

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