The Peabody Opera Theatre presents
music by Jules Massenet
text by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille
after Histoire de chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut
by the Abbé Prévost
Ken Lam, guest conductor
conducting the Peabody Symphony Orchestra
Roger Brunyate, stage director
Sofya Karash, set designer
Douglas Nelson, lighting designer
JoAnn Kulesza, principal coach
Thursday–Saturday, November 18–20, 2010, at 7:30 PM
Sunday, November 21, 2010, at 3:00 PM
Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall
Peabody Conservatory of Music
1 East Mt. Vernon Place
Admission $25 / Seniors $15 / Students with ID $10
Box Office: 410/659-8100 x2, or
The Emergence of Manon. In an essay written for the 2000 Peabody Opera Theatre production of the opera by the late John Lehmeyer, artistic director Roger Brunyate traces the genesis of the opera and the many changes made by Massenet and his librettists to the Abbé Prévost’s original text.
When the Abbé Prévost published The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut in 1731, it became such a succès de scandale that all copies were ordered to be seized. Despite this, it was soon reprinted in countless editions and became a classic in the literature of the libertine. Its basic intent, however, is moral. The Chevalier’s descent from aspiring divinity student to scoundrel is a kind of Rake’s Progress, told in colorful detail. That he should be brought low by a beautiful woman, Manon Lescaut, only adds to the frisson, and the fact that she is only fifteen when we first meet her completes the archetype of the eternal Eve.
It was not until the later 19th century that Manon captured the interest of opera composers. Massenet’s version of 1884 comes between others by Auber and Puccini; Manon was a popular lady! What appealed to these audiences was the nature of the love-bond itself, forged in exuberant innocence and strong enough to withstand separation, betrayal, and even death. It is a quintessentially Romantic notion, flowering in Massenet’s glorious music. But it is at odds with the rational morality of Prévost’s original. Though Massenet and his colleagues are working from Prévost’s book, they are doing so in translation, as it were, almost on different pages. And the tension that arises from these clashes is one of the most fascinating aspects of this already-fascinating work.
It carries through to the characters also. Manon and Des Grieux appear together in five of the six scenes in the opera, and sing love duets in four of them. But there is not a single scene in which they are both on the same page emotionally. In Scene 1, for instance, Manon becomes the instant romantic ideal for Des Grieux’ poetic soul; she likes him well enough in return, but his immediate importance is in offering an escape from the convent to which her parents have consigned her. In Scene 2, they are living happily enough in their Parisian love-nest, but both are aware that this idyll cannot long continue, and Manon has already entered into discussions with a much richer lover, De Brétigny—a fact which she of course hides from Des Grieux. Her great aria in this scene, "Allons! Il le faut!", even shows her in conflict with herself, one part wanting to leave for the glamorous life and the other part wanting to stay with her first love.
A year or so later, in Scene 4, when we see Des Grieux on the verge of the priesthood, we hear his aria of inner conflict, "Ah, fuyez, douce image!", in which he is torn between his memories of Manon and his dedication to God. So the scene is set for another duet on different pages, as Manon, bored with the hollowness of her new life, returns to seduce her former lover on the very steps of the altar. Scene 5, set in a casino, is another drama at cross-purposes, as she persuades him to overcome his scruples against gambling in order to feed her own lust for excitement. The two are on different pages even in the final scene, when the sick Manon wants only to die in a state of grace, but Des Grieux still clings to his hopes of rescuing her.
The influence of Bizet’s Carmen, premiered ten years earlier in 1874, is certainly apparent in the repeated seductions and the steady decline of the hero. Like Bizet, Massenet follows the opéra comique tradition in the numerous dialogues (which, however, he generally sets against music), and in the use of light-hearted trios and quintets to punctuate the action. But he remains more of a romantic than Bizet, less ready to condemn his heroine. Indeed, audiences have willingly continued to fall under her charm, whatever the mystery of her fascination.
All illustrations are taken from design sketches by Sofya Karash.
Singers listed first appear in the Thursday and Saturday performances.|
Passing the cursor over singer’s names will show any previous roles.
|The Chevalier des Grieux||
|Lescaut, Manon’s cousin||
|The Count des Grieux, the Chevalier’s father||
|Guillot de Morfontaine, an elderly roué||
|M. de Brétigny||
|Pousette, an actress||
|Javotte, an actress||
|Rosette, an actress||