The Manon Project being: How to cobble an epic Manon opera by combining the two popular Manon operas still performed today and thereby create a new work more closely tied to the plot of the original Prévost novel. Also to plug my screenplay titled Manon.
What? Only two operas? Right, I’ll skip over Auber’s Manon Lescaut (premiered 1856 at the Opéra Comique in Paris). Short, charming, certainly in the Zeitgeist of that era, fun, but it has extraneous characters, situations and scenes completely unrelated to the novel. Maybe one could remove surgically a brief encounter in Act II where Des Grieux and Manon are caught supping like two bad mice at the Marquis’s mansion or carve from the last act in Louisiana Manon’s death in Des Grieux’s arms…but we have Puccini for this. Otherwise Auber’s oeuvre would seriously muddy the water for this project.
So two operas: Massenet’s Manon, in five acts and six tableaux, which premiered in 1884 at the Opéra Comique in Paris, at the Metropolitan Opera in 1895, is laid out as follows: Act I is the Inn in Amiens; Act II is the Apartment on Rue Vivienne in Paris; Act III, Scene I is the Cours La Reine; Act III, Scene II is the Reception Room in St. Sulpice; Act IV is the Hotel Transylvania; Act V is on the road to Le Havre. At the Met, comme d’habitude, Acts I & II are bundled, Act III has the two scenes, then follow Acts IV & V bundled, yielding a two intermission evening (not counting pauses). Librettists are Henri Meilhac and Phillippe Gille.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, in four acts, which premiered in 1893 at Turin, at the Metropolitan Opera in 1907 as part of a grand Puccini festival, himself in attendance, is laid out as follows: Act I is the Inn in Amiens, near the Paris Gate; Act II is an elegant salon in Geronte’s apartment in Paris; then follows an Intermezzo titled “The Journey to La Havre.” Act III is a Square near the Harbor, La Havre; Act IV is in Louisiana, French territory at the time, an “endless plain” on the borders of New Orléans. Librettists are variously Ruggero Leoncavallo, Domenico Oliva, Marco Praga, Giuseppe Giacosa, and Luigi Illica, even Giulio Ricordi, with veto power from Puccini).
Granted, a cobbled epic patched together from these diverse parts would be stylistically inconsistent, both in music and in language. What’s more, some parts of the existing works would have to be jettisoned because, well-intentioned as they may be, they are bald-faced departures from what really happens in the novel. Truth be told, the cobble could wobble: if for this project you’re strict, rigidly so, in your adherence to rules for inclusion or exclusion of material by its fidelity or infidelity to the original novel you’d not have much left beyond some isolated bit and pieces.
Pressing on despite these difficulties and personality quirks, shall we call it Mega Manon? No? Only as a working title then. In the ensuing discourse, M refers to Massenet’s Manon whereas ML refers to Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, MM refers to the working title of the cobbled grand new opera Mega Manon. Let the process begin!
For the record, Prévost’s novel, first published in 1731, though quickly banned, revised and corrected in the last edition in 1753, is structured as a flashback. It arouses our curiosity with a prologue-like teaser in which one Rononcour, a ‘man of quality,’ observes a haggard Des Grieux trailing behind the wagon which transports Manon and other women prisoners to Le Havre to be deported to New Orléans in the New World. The narrative then jumps two years to the ‘present’ (1753 in my screenplay*) at which time Des Grieux has returned from New Orléans. He by happy chance encounters Rononcour again, this time in Calais, where, over dinner and much wine, the sadder but wiser lad relates his sorrowful tale of love, betrayal, and loss and love and loss etc. from start to finish. The ‘history’ of Chevalier Des Grieux and Manon Lescaut is Des Grieux’s remembrance of things past.
Also for the record, Des Grieux at the beginning of the adventure in the novel is a young 17, Manon is a precocious 15. Tenors and sopranos pushing 50 don’t quite capture the teenage passion of the pair, even if, by their training, they can capture the passion of the music written for them. Thinking this through, Brünnhilde, Isolde and Salome, usually sung by the more mature, big lunged set, are probably teenagers too. Oh well, at least the first two mentioned don’t have to dance like a dervish and take off their veils one by one…
Noteworthy and relevant in any discussion of the page-to-opera stage translation of Prevost’s L’Histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut is the pattern of the story. Counting their initial meeting, there are four cycles, each consisting of variations of six stages. It goes thus. Stage I: Manon and Des Grieux are happy in young love, not a care in the world, but Stage II: they are beset by financial difficulties (Des Grieux, though a promising lad from a wealthy family, has no source of income while living in sin), thus ushering in Stage III: in which another man, usually more worldly and, more importantly, wealthy, wants Manon in the flesh and will pay for her, ‘keep’ her, which solves the cash flow problems of Stage II, though the arrangement understandably causes Des Grieux great distress. Enter Stage IV: in at least three out of four cycles one or both of the kids do something really stupid, are arrested, separated, incarcerated or, in the end, running for their lives. It’s a hopeless situation, mais in Stage V: Des Grieux, as part of his reformation while locked up, gets his mind right and seemingly caves in to traditional wholesome upperclass ways, “wholesome” here implying that he will renounce the low class evil temptress Manon forever. But in Stage VI, his reform is revealed as a sham: in the first three of four cycles he finds a way to reunite with his true love, they quickly settle relationship differences, change their linens, all sins are forgiven so that in Cycle X+1, Stage I the kids fall in love again, and so on and so forth.
Though the mechanisms are different in each, this pattern happens four times, the last ending with Manon’s sad death from exhaustion in the lowlands of Louisiana. The repetition of the cycles can strain a reader’s patience and credulity. What, again?! As a parent I swear I wanted to step into the pages and shake ‘em by the collar! They never seem to wise up! They don’t even learn the hard way!
In his 1753 revision of the novel, Prévost inserts a short episode about a flirtatious Italian Prince who seeks Manon’s attentions, evoking that “here we go again” reaction, but it doesn’t materialize. It breaks the six stage pattern, but it’s not very interesting, boring actually, and, worse, it disrupts the rhythm and momentum of the narrative. Fear not, I did not bother to put it into the screenplay.
Point is, to set all of these separate scenes, more or less redundant dramatically, in the four cycles of six stages in a staged opera would strain the scenic resources of any opera house, let alone the patience of a savvy audience…Der Ring des Manon Lescaut und Des Grieux. So to fashion a libretto from the novel by necessity takes a lot of cutting and rearranging.
But I digress…
Des Grieux’s narrative, in flashback, starts at Amiens, as do the two operas. However, though both operas capture the mood: spring, flowers, love in the air, the bustle of coaches arriving and departing and all that, neither M nor ML get the story completely right. If we adhere to Prévost that is.
For instances: yes, Manon and Des Grieux meet at Amiens, become quickly infatuated with one another and run off together to Paris, but no, they don’t pinch a carriage arranged by an old roué who is eager to bed Manon and keep her as a mistress. Therefore the conclusion of the Act I of either M or ML must be trimmed of whatever nonsense follows the hasty and exciting departure of Manon and Des Grieux in the carriage. Yes, the aftermath is necessary and informative for the development of each opera’s plot, but textually, musically and dramatically it’s a real buzz-kill. Docking the end of Act I could be done easily in M; in fact I remember the curtain coming down at that point in one live performance at least, either at the Met or at the New York City Opera back in the day. Maybe the wishful thinking that someone got it right is clouding my memory. Paix, Jules.
In M Guillot de Morfontaine, accompanied by de Brétigny, arranges for the carriage; in ML it is Geronte di Ravoir. In Prévost, a Monsieur de B…, who is a farmer general, commanding, I guess, les haricot verts, the wealthy Monsieur G…M…and the son of Monsieur G…M… are the same types as the roués in the operas, just not in the first scene. Though my screenplay more or less follows the plotline of the novel, I pinched the names from the operas, a nod to my friends Jules et Giac’, with the simple adjustment that Geronte de Ravoir becomes Guillot de Morfontaine’s son Geronte. With this, Act II of Puccini’s ML fits into MM easily. But not here, not yet.
In Prévost, Lescaut, Manon’s brother (not her cousin as in M), doesn’t appear until about a third of the way into the novel, so he’s nowhere to be found in the vicinity of Act I of either M or ML. Lescaut is a disreputable scallywag through and through: he gambles, he cheats, he cheats even his comrades, let alone unsuspecting wealthy gents who frequent the dens of iniquity. He is a rogue, a survivor, and a businessman of minimum scruples. Lescaut is very aware that wealthy gentlemen find his young sister Manon über attractive and that, therefore, they might want, for a sizeable fee (and benefits of course), to get a closer peek at her wares and the rights to do a little applied anatomy. Do we care enough to match Prévost by cutting Lescaut completely out of Act I of M or ML? No. We could rename his character, change a few lines here and there...could work.
In Prévost and both operas, Manon tells Des Grieux that her family is sending her to a convent because she loves pleasure, though ‘pleasure’ is ill defined. Whatever, we get the drift: in Prévost her journey is accompanied by an elderly attendant, an argus she calls him, a beast with a thousand eyes. Manon dupes the old fellow into staying the night at the Inn at Amiens so that she and her ‘cousin’ (as she introduces Des Grieux) can catch up on old times, but, in reality, as they’ve already planned, so that the love birds can elope in the wee hours of the next morning. Des Grieux hires the carriage; he has to do an end run around his friend (see below) to make the escape happen.
In Puccini’s ML, Des Grieux is befriended by Edmund, a leader and organizer of sorts who stirs all of the students and beautiful girls to embrace love and spring, even him perhaps, and then engage in some innocent gambling. Eddy is a fun guy (though not a mushroom…old joke) and, ever-observant and with good over-hearing, he alerts Des Grieux that the elder Geronte, who arrived in the same carriage as Manon, probably aroused to a blush and panting at the thought of her all of the way through the city gates, is plotting to whisk her away in his own hired carriage, Ed adding to this that, how convenient, said carriage is already out back behind the Inn waiting to depart, the driver expecting an unspecified “gentleman and a young lady.” In other words, there it is, the carriage, probably paid for in advance. Edmund makes the couple’s elopement happen in ML, and for this Puccini drops him.
In Prévost there is no such character named Edmund, but Des Grieux has a best friend, a wet blanket named Tiberge. Tiberge is three years older and destined for the priesthood, whereas the wealthier Des Grieux, the second son in a well-heeled family, is destined for the honorable Cross of the Order of Malta. It is never directly stated that Tiberge wishes for a much more intimate relationship with Des Grieux, but he does seem inordinately put out that Des Grieux should fall in love so quickly with the beautiful Manon, thereby interrupting his studies and compromising his social position with the affair, even though everybody knows most upper class alpha males wouldn’t think twice about bedding an attractive young common girl.
Tiberge resurfaces conveniently, well sometimes inconveniently, throughout the novel to reaffirm their friendship, give some protective warnings, provide an effective antidote to unbridled levity, and/or lend Des Grieux money, more often in this last capacity. At the end, knowing what’s going to transpire at Le Havre by a letter from Des Grieux, a desperate last minute plea for more money, Tiberge, of course arriving too late, mail delivery being what it was back in those days, subsequently sails to the New World in search of his friend, eventually locating him in New Orléans. He convinces Des Grieux to return with him to France, this now a year or so after Manon’s death in the ‘desert’ of Louisiana. In Prévost, any further mention of Tiberge is quietly dropped; in the screenplay he contracts a disease during the voyage home and dies on shipboard, all of this off screen. Well, my script is rather long enough, so there's no time for a teary fond farewell or even a brief ‘seriously, I mean this, thanks for all you’ve done for me’…
Back to task: Mega Manon should start with Act I (as written) of Massenet’s M, not with Puccini’s ML Act I. Des Grieux, who’s telling the story don’t forget, is literally experiencing for the first time the hormonal surge of young manhood in these opening scenes of the novel, but he is still tentative. I feel the mood of M is more correct, more innocent, gentler, younger, then, as the chemistry clicks in, impetuous, take the carriage and run!! ML, to some extent awkward, misses this spark, and at least Lescaut is not complicit with Guillot in M as he is with Geronte in ML. He’s not complicit with either in Prévost because he’s simply not there.
This is Stage I of Cycle I in Prévost, in M, and now the first block in the cobbled MM: The first love fuels their flight from Amiens to Paris. Manon and Des Grieux arrive in town unimpeded and, indeed, they nestle in a little apartment. But, unlike the rooftop garret in La Bohème, it’s a flat, notre petite table notwithstanding, in the high rent district of the city in 1750, said to be near the old Stock Market. Prévost calls it “Rue V” My map of 1750 Paris suggests Rue Vivienne, which is probably not unlike Washington Square in the Village or the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I’m proud of my reasoning here with the trusty old map but, to be fair, the translator of the novel and the scene locations in libretto of an EMI recording of Manon suggest this as well. However, it’s not just the ghastly high rent: worse, Manon gets a notion of haute couture and style by passing the fine dress shops and observing the elegant patrons. She craves expensive pleasures, she fancies the Opéra (who doesn’t?). She'll really hit her stride in Cycle II. In the screenplay her favorite is Rameau’s Platée.
Stage II: so, though they brought a little allowance with them, they’re soon broke. The first “other man” (Stage III) is de Brétigny, the name, as I said already, is borrowed from Massenet’s M. His involvement is coincident with Stage IV: Des Grieux’s Father, le Comte des Grieux, has our hero kidnapped (the end of Massenet’s M Act II) and returned to the family estate, where he is imprisoned in the attic for months to get his mind right (not shown). Manon takes up with her new sugar daddy; he keeps her in style. This could be M Act III, Scene I, the Cours La Reine; in Prévost the time passing (and the remembrance of things passing) is with Des Grieux in the attic, who, after all, is telling the story. He’s not a witness to Manon’s actions with Monsieur B. Stage V: Des Grieux comes around to a wholesome focus, Tiberge is reunited with him, he obtains his freedom and subsequently assumes religious studies at the Sorbonne. Des Grieux doesn’t tell us too much about this, but it’s implied by the St. Sulpice Scene (M Act III, Scene II). Even his Father le Comte comes there to congratulate him. But also Manon has gotten wind of his whereabouts. The ‘sweet image’ he’d hoped would disappear becomes once again a reality, they patch up their differences in a glorious duet (Stage VI, leading directly to Stage I of Cycle II) as the lovers are swallowed by the night into the depths of Paris.
Massenet is the only opera to cover this Cycle. Yes, Puccini’s ML, Act II, shows Manon being kept in style by Geronte, but the scene, by my reckoning, comes later in Prévost (see below). To repeat, Stages II & III of Cycle I (above) will be Massenet’s M Act II and Act III Scene I, the Cours La Reine scene…Truth is I waffle about this last insert: pleasant as it is, it’s more or less fluff, optional actually, just an excuse for a ballet and Manon’s show-off aria. What’s more, Massenet’s le Comte is more mellow, more fatherly in the opera than the stern authoritarian in the book. If we’re trying to match Prévost, at least M’s Father le Comte has to go. Your call.
Stage I of Cycle II begins after the passionate St. Sulpice scene in which Manon breaks Des Grieux’s resolve and steals him from redemption. This scene is in Prévost and dramatically prominent in Massenet’s M as Act III, Scene II, so it definitely should follow whatever we’ve decided to put together for Cycle I as the bridge to Cycle II. But this time Manon has oodles of money still under her mattress, metaphorically speaking, from de Brétigny and that’s even before she sells all the furnishings (and the mattress) he purchased for her. But going against all of Des Grieux's calculations of a reasonable household budget, because they have no new income, he and Manon are able to live a pretty high life: opera, parties, new clothes, lots of champagne, lots more opera, a carriage, all fun, that is until their cottage on the outskirts of Paris burns to the ground and not once, but twice servants, though deemed trustworthy, pinch the cash box. Thus we enter Stage II of Cycle II: no money again.
Just a bit earlier in the novel the rascally Lescaut barges into their world. Aside from being the guest who wouldn’t leave, adding to the financial sinkhole, and ruining his sister’s experience at the opera (in the screenplay at least), he does two important things related to household income: he teaches Des Grieux how to win at gambling (by cheating, of course) and he also is quick to promote the bright idea of procuring a rich lover for his sister Manon (for a finder’s fee), thus ushering in Stage III of the cycle in the guise of Guillot de Morfontaine, named from Massenet for Monsieur G.M. in Prévost. Guillot road-tests the ride with Manon on a weekend at his estate to the south east of Paris near Fontainebleau, no details of which are given in the book, but, as a result, for sure he wants to keep her, until, back in Paris, she convinces him that it’d really be a lot of fun to invite for dinner Lescaut (who set up the whole deal remember) and her “naïve brother from the country” (aka Des Grieux). Beginning of Stage IV: she joyfully teases the old man sexually to get a necklace and the cash up front, the first installment of money for her ‘keep,’ but then, all caution thrown to the wind, she and Des Grieux play ‘wink wink nudge nudge’ with each other, laugh and giggle a lot at dinner, so much so that Guillot gets suspicious. As he nods nearly asleep, the trio takes the money and runs; Guillot, evidently no fool, has them followed. The gendarmes raid Lescaut’s apartment, arrest the lovers and drag them off to separate prisons. Lucky Lescaut has skedaddled before the cops get there. None of this is in either opera.
Massenet’s Act IV (Hotel Transylvania, a notorious gambling venue) could work after the St. Sulpice scene (M, Act III, Scene II), in that it shows Des Grieux has mastered a knack for winning, the gambling establishment has at least the levity of their dinner with Guillot, and it ends with the older gentleman denouncing our couple, leading to their arrest. But it’s not really right: in M Des Grieux is arrested for cheating at cards, not for conspiring to play the fool and prank the old man to steal from him, and Manon is arrested only as his accomplice, no mention of any contractual liaison, necklaces, bucks, etc. from Guillot. Also in this scene in M le Comte, Des Grieux’s father, barges in and assures his son he will throw his influence to arrange an immediate pardon for his son, while allowing Manon to be dragged away to ‘where they take women of her kind.’
But hey, you protest still, wait a minute! Why not Puccini’s ML, Act II? Isn’t Manon decked out in finery, hoop skirt, white wig and all, a kept woman of some wealthy old dude? Doesn’t Des Grieux do the stupid thing of intruding and urging her to scram with the jewels? Doesn’t Lescaut barge in to say that the grenadiers have surrounded the apartment at Geronte’s orders? Isn’t Manon arrested, probably sentenced to deportation to the colonies?
Yes, but be patient! For one thing, Manon is not in hoops yet. ML Act II is more correctly Stage IV of Cycle III, not Cycle II.
Stages V and VI of Cycle II are not in either opera, actually not even mentioned as, say, in a reflective aria about “Helas! My tormented soul is plagued by visions of her beauty, how I have suffered in these long dark months in the hoosegow! Cruel fate! Ah, misery!” Nope. And rest assured Des Grieux thinks of her constantly, locked up as he is in Saint - Lazare, at the time more of a religious reform prison for wealthier scofflaws, but still walled and gated, not to say ‘minimum security’ or ‘gated all-inclusive resort.’
Manon, poor dear, is locked up in the notorious L’Hôpital Général de Salpêtrière, which is practically a fortress in the fields (at that time) on the eastern outskirts of Paris. It was originally something of a hospital, then more of a prison and workhouse, often the last stop on the planet for indigent beggars and whores, all part of a concerted effort by the royals to clean up the streets of Paris. Give them no source of income and let them eat cake, right? Any wonder the French Revolution is just around the corner? Stage V, Des Grieux gets on the good side of the Father Superior, who visits him to have philosophical chats now and then, but with a pistol slipped to him by the wily Lescaut, Des Grieux one night puts the barrel hard to the head of the Father for a safe passage to the front gate. He escapes.
No sooner free, he seeks to spring Manon. As an aside here, Des Grieux knows where she is imprisoned because the miserable old Guillot, the one who pressed charges against them, had come to visit him, observing that they both seem share a taste for hot pretty young women the likes of Manon. Enraged, Des Grieux physically assaults him right then and there, actually whacks his head on the stone floor (at least in the screenplay), another stupid thing to do when one is locked up; Des Grieux, in his escape, also shoots one of the guards. No more Mr. Nice Guy!
The rapscallion Lescaut hides Des Grieux in the Court of Miracles, a den of thieves and worse in the northern outskirts of Paris, so called because beggars seen lying crippled in town actually get up and walk again there. Remember John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera or Brecht/Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper? Same scam. I might have added a more precise location to the screenplay…not sure at this point.
Needless to say, Stage VI of Cycle II, Des Grieux’s reform is a sham. Worse, he lacks a workable plan to rescue Manon from her certain violation and further degradation. But he is ever the observant one: he notes that a certain young dandy freely comes and goes at L’Hôpital. Des Grieux propositions said youth with an offer that he’ll get a chance to meet his entrancing mistress, therein imprisoned unjustly, if he, Thibault by name, will somehow grant access to her. Thibault takes the bait.
To make a long story short, they smuggle men’s garb into the prison and Manon, in disguise, simply walks out with a trusty servant, thus completing Stage VI of Cycle II, beginning Stage I of Cycle III, when ‘love springs eternal’ once more. The bummer here is that Lescaut is shot point blank in the face by former colleagues whom he has outrightly cheated. He’s been getting increasingly wild and reckless, so in the screenplay, toward his last scenes, we find him ramped up to mania and violence rather easily.
Though Manon’s health has been compromised at L’Hôpital, Stage II is not so bad this time around, especially with loans here and there. Remember Tiberge? But here quietly comes Stage III: Thibault, instrumental in Manon’s escape, has a friend…watch out kids...who wants to meet the adorable Manon, one Geronte (so called in the screenplay, the name taken from Puccini’s ML), by horrible coincidence the son of the same Monsieur Guillot from Cycle II. Geronte invades their cottage almost unannounced; while Des Grieux is out back feeding the cat, Geronte brashly makes Manon an offer she can’t refuse, which she doesn’t of course. Des Grieux is crushed, but she more or less says ‘chill, you big dummy, no problem,’ thus setting up Stage IV. Her reasoning is, paraphrasing: I’ll get him all hot while we wait for the first installment of cash and jewels, then, like we almost pulled off with his papa, we take the money and run, this time to Italy for good where they’ll never find us.
I was kidding about the cat.
Stage IV is prolonged: Figuring Geronte will want to impress Manon with box seat tickets at the Comédie Francaise (who wouldn’t be impressed?), their first plan involves Manon, laden with jewels and cash, bolting from the performance to a hired carriage outside, Des Grieux waiting anxiously, if not exactly reins and whip already in hand. It fails because young Geronte decides to wring his money’s worth out of Manon on their first night together. I’m not happy about this. Neither is Des Grieux.
But knowing Des Grieux will be crushed, sitting in an empty carriage all alone on a cold night waiting for her to dash out of the theater, Manon sends instead a pretty young woman, actually Geronte’s former mistress, to meet him there. She informs Des Grieux they’re not coming, so…wanna spend the night with me? Only fair, I guess, but Des Grieux, tormented by this, is not remotely amused and politely declines. Manon’s plan, though, is a ruse to convince Geronte that Des Grieux has more or less grown weary of her and therefore, especially with a new young woman, will be unlikely to interfere. She wants the overprotective, suspicious Geronte to let down his guard, in other words.
Because indeed Manon is a captive. Again, cutting to the chase, Thibault arranges to get Geronte out of the apartment for an afternoon so that Des Grieux can visit his caged darling. He finds her quietly reading; her reaction to our hero's entrance is oddly blasé at first.
But Thibault also plants the seed of a great idea…tell me, is this really a great idea? Des Grieux should arrange to have Geronte kidnapped as he returns to the apartment (only coincidentally by the same ruffians who murdered Lescaut), ‘napped, but not harmed, kept overnight, so that Des Grieux and Manon can playfully pass the hours away in the fancy apartment, laughing, eating his rich food, drinking his fine wine, having wild sex all night in his very own bed, and then leave town with the jewels early the next morning before Geronte is released. What fun!
I confess though, after my first reading of Thibault’s scheme, the thought lingers that he was actually setting the kids up. Thibault is Geronte’s friend after all…But I keep the motivation ambiguous in the screenplay.
Either way, snag is that one of Geronte’s servants lags behind his master and witnesses the kidnapping. He hurries to inform father Guillot, who, fearing for his son’s safety, summons the gendarmes to his son’s apartment. Here we go again.
Therefore Puccini’s Act II of ML must be this next scene in MM. It begins with Manon, a kept woman in Geronte’s apartment: she’s dressed to the nines, hooped dress, et al., fawned over by a hairdresser and staff, entertained by singers (she loves the opera, remember), and even set for some dancing lessons. Nothing spared. But more because of her situation she regrets the loss of the passion of her true love Des Grieux, expressed in her aria In quelle trine morbide. My Italian grandmother-in-law used to sing this quietly as she stirred pasta on the stove. She may have seen Farrar on stage at the Met.
In ML Des Grieux enters through the agency of Lescaut (who, recall, is dead by this point in the novel). But, though Des Grieux and Manon sing a passionate love duet, a favorite of mine, he is clearly tired of the Cycles, as he tells her in his aria Ah, Manon, mi tradische il tuo folle pensier: he’s suffered a lot of degradation to make ends meet, now a cheat at cards, morally adrift, he feels like dirt, at which time she begs his forgiveness.
Musically as well this scene belongs here: Puccini’s sound is darker, more anguished, much less unabashedly entertaining. All along I’ve placed Massenet’s scenes first, certainly because the story line fits, but also because Massenet’s music, to my ears, is more in the spirit of young innocent love, more of the Opéra Comique: lighter, at times serious in intent, but punctuated by gaiety and frivolity (though not as over-the-top frivolous as Auber’s Manon Lescaut). But Puccini’s last three acts of ML are more wrenching emotionally.
And also in the book, Des Grieux is tired of the Cycles. It might have been the wait in the carriage in the cold night outside the Comédie Francaise or it might be the rather nonchalant reception he gets from Manon at Geronte’s, that she seems to have settled into the situation. But she begs his forgiveness, he forgives her, and then, not shown in the ML Act II, they follow through with the merry pranks of eating, drinking, laughing and frolicking in his bed.
In the book, the couple is literally caught with their pants down; worse, Freud notwithstanding, Des Grieux can’t find his sword to ward off the gendarmes. Back to L’Hôpital for Manon and this time to Le Petite Châtelet, a smaller prison on the Seine, for Des Grieux.
Stage V: In Massenet’s M, Act IV le Comte des Grieux throws about his influence to have his son quickly released into his care, as he promised. In Prévost le Comte has come to Paris to witness his errant son’s reformation and graciously accept him back into the family, this journey in response to an earlier letter from the lad before the kidnapping prank happened. The vaguely phrased invitation conceals a plan to introduce Manon to Dad, with an eye toward winning his consent to their marriage. Well, that's on hold for now: Des Grieux pleads with his Father to persuade old Guillot to drop charges against Manon, thereby enabling her release from L’Hôpital. But, get this, the two old bastards merrily agree that the best thing for the little slut is deportation with other prostitutes to the New World! Des Grieux’s better judgment stays his hand toward his Father when he hears of this. He's done. At this point he’ll have nothing more to do with the old man. In no uncertain terms, their relationship is over.
Okay, now what? L’Hôpital is an impregnable fortress. Momentarily lacking a reality check here, Des Grieux thinks to ‘invade’ it to pull off a rescue. Another simple plan. Enter again the ever thoughtful Thibault who knows on which day Manon and the other indigents are to be transported by wagon to Le Havre. One big drag though: it’s guarded by armed soldiers. Des Grieux borrows money (again) to outfit and arm a small band of mercenaries with the idea of freeing Manon en route. Now armed, uniformed, saddled, and paid, our hero and his mercenaries await the wagon in ambush, but, basically cowards, the lot flees at the first shot fired their way. Now alone, at an all-time low, his life force just about sucked from his soul, Des Grieux has no other choice but to pay the wagon guards to let him follow Manon’s wagon on horseback to Le Havre. Lescaut, deceased as noted above, is not in either ‘transportation’ scene in M or ML.
Back to the MM project, one should keep Puccini’s emotional Intermezzo (from between Acts II and III of ML), but then stack on Act V of Massenet’s M, which takes place on the road to Le Havre (but we have to remember to cut before her final death scene. In M, she dies even before arriving in Le Havre). We’d then follow it with Puccini’s full Act III, in which, Stage VI of Cycle III, Des Grieux is allowed to board the ship and sail to the New World with his Manon.
A critical bit of information here, not mentioned in Puccini’s Act III of ML: Des Grieux, in addition to singing with ultra-passion, must convince the ship’s Captain that he and Manon are married, additional persuasion with some coins in hand too. In consequence, she is unshackled and our lovers are given better quarters on board. Des Grieux works hard on the ship and the couple is respected (none of this is shown in the opera).
When they land in New Orleans, the chained prostitutes are ushered down the gangplank and lined up so that the men, mostly deported criminals who’ve been awaiting this moment for long months, can choose a spouse. But first the Governor has the privilege of picking the most worthy, attractive and healthy women for his friends and valued minions, leaving the rest of them for the dregs of male humanity. Through the Captian’s introduction, Manon and Des Grieux, being married, healthy, able, intelligent and pretty darn hungry dine with the Governor on the first night. This begins Stage I of Cycle IV.
At this moment, Des Grieux and Manon are in Paradise.
Three small digressions about relevant aspects of marriage: 1) Des Grieux wanted to marry Manon from the beginning of the tale. In his mind this love was not a teenage fling, nor an aristocratic noblesse oblige thing. No, he fully intended to do so at a carriage stop along the journey from Amiens to Paris, but, you remember these moments, the passion of their first night together and the rush of Paris the following weeks distracted them. At least his intentions were good. Marriage, he figured, would force his Father’s hand to accept her and, when of age, he would then receive a portion of his mother’s estate and establish himself in a respectable trade of some sort, law perhaps…stocks, speculation? This idea came back to him again at Stage I of the previous round, Cycle III when things seemed pretty stable.
But le Comte wouldn’t see it that way because 2) according to the social customs of most European societies, his son, though the second not the eldest, is still of a much higher station than Manon’s sort. Such a marriage would shame the family, but, worse, weaken its financial power. Same thing in Verdi’s La Traviata. In fact, in its source, Alexandre Dumas fils’ Camille, aka Marguerite Gautier, aka The Lady of the Camellias because she only ordered camellias from her florist, is of a lower station than the wealthier Armand Duval. In the Dumas novel both Marguerite and Armand share a fondness for Prévost’s Manon as a tale of true love. Our Manon would have nothing to bring to the nuptial table in le Comte’s eyes, certainly not when compared to that brought by Des Grieux’s deceased mother. I exaggerate the size his mother’s dowry in the screenplay in order to inflate the hypocrisy of le Comte’s rather pompous proclamations about rank, power and influence. He, in my version, more obviously married the purse. There are other changes; I don’t see him as a very happy man.
In the New World, save for those few who represent a formal hierarchically organized institution, such as the government, the church, the military, or the investors, most everyone was more or less on the same plain. So 3) rank by birth mattered less in the New World, thus far less of an impediment to marriage. Most folks there simply worked to survive, the builders, hunters and trappers, explorers, farmers, servants, etc., the ones there voluntarily certainly, but even the deported criminals and prostitutes who to some degree had reformed. The New World was ‘marketed’ to the Old as a virgin of untold riches in need of seduction and exploitation, which is why many countries shipped their criminals here: somebody had to do the hard labor! In addition, there was less of an economy based on minted coin. Labor, goods and barter, and also a lot of sharing, less private property were more prevalent. Old Voltaire would have been proud!
Consequently there’s no real Stage II in Cycle IV and therefore no Stage III…almost. But before Stage IV begins, Manon and Des Grieux are the happiest, most at peace since the sunrise of the morning after their first night together. It’s the best of all possible worlds.
Having forsworn his father, his family, and his mother's money Des Grieux knows there is no reason ever to return to France…so (here comes IV): he, out of his deep, always sincere, mostly untroubled love and respect for his dearest Manon…my goodness it’s a beautiful thing after all the trials they’ve endured, decides to ask the Governor, his friend, to oversee a his formal marriage to her.
Which reveals that they hadn’t been married all along. Unfortunately it turns out that if Manon is not a married woman under her husband’s control then she comes to Louisiana as a deported felon under the jurisdiction of the Governor who, with no hesitation, will honor the request of his cousin Synnelet, who, almost Stage III, though not for money, has taken a definite liking to the increasingly more healthy and fetching Manon. Des Grieux, all peace of mind, all beautiful things, also the best of all possible worlds apocalyptically shattered suddenly, rashly challenges Synnelet, a seasoned swordsman, to a duel…honorable, yes. Suicidal?...but happily Des Grieux accesses his inner fencing lessons, as foresight would have it part of the training the aristocrats receive, and he ends up, parry, thrust, parry, a well aimed thrust running the bastard through, which is a good thing but also certainly a bad thing: now he’s murdered the Governor’s cousin!
Interesting that the Kenneth MacMillan ballet Manon (to Massenet’s non-operatic music mostly, performed by ABT now and then), includes this scene; Auber’s opera alludes to a duel, but ML does not even mention why they’re where they are in Louisiana.
In the utmost despair, Des Grieux gathers up Manon, a few belongings, some water and edibles, and then bids a sad but not-overly-long farewell to their loyal servants. The fugitives rush off into the wilderness. His plan is to get either to the British territory to the north and east of the Mississippi River or to a neighboring tribe of Native Americans, with whom Des Grieux has had friendly trade. But they fall prey to dehydration and heat exhaustion. She collapses; he strips off his clothes, wraps her in them, and sleeps by her, pressed closely to her body keep her warm. Sadly Manon dies in his arms that damp night, another heavenly star gone from cosmos. Des Grieux lies with her for a long time, waiting for death to claim him and to reunite them in a less vulnerable Paradise.
But no such luck. Puccini’s Act IV of ML is the only choice for this scene and therefore the final scene of MM; for the record, Auber’s Manon Lescaut contains a variation of the final scene.
He buries her, fashions a Cross out of his broken sword. Des Grieux is arrested in the wilderness by the Governor’s troops, who have been following somewhat close behind; he is dragged back in irons to face trial and certain execution. However Synnelet actually lives, it was only a flesh wound. He rightly admits, as a gentleman, that it was he who caused all the trouble and, since he has recovered but cannot see any real advantage to marrying Manon now, drops all charges against Des Grieux. Tiberge locates him and brings him back to France where Rononcour is told the long narrative.
So it goes.
In summary, Mega Manon consists of the following Acts and Scenes from Massenet’s Manon and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut with minor adjustments as explained above:
MM ACT I, Scene I Massenet’s Act I, Amiens (but cut the end after the lovers’ exit).
ACT I, Scene II Massenet’s Act II, the Apartment on Rue Vivienne.
ACT I, Scene III Massenet’s Act III, Scene I, Cours La Reine (cut the Comte’s soliloquy).
ACT II, Scene I Massenet’s Act III, Scene II, St. Sulpice (keep the Comte’s soliloquy).
ACT II, Scene II Massenet’s Act IV, Gambling Scene (but cut their arrest at the end).
ACT II, Scene III Puccini’s Act II Geronte’s Apartment in Paris.
Puccini’s Orchestral Interlude “The Journey to Le Havre.”
ACT III, Scene I Massenet’s Act V, en route to Le Havre (but cut Manon’s death).
ACT III, Scene II, Puccini’s Act III the Square at Le Havre.
ACT III, Scene III, Puccini’s Act IV, the Plains of Louisiana.
You could do this MM with recordings, but, of course, the opera would be in two languages.
No! Wait! Hold the curtain!! Come to think of it, there is at least one recording of Massenet’s Manon in Italian (I have it, of course).
And wait, hold it! It gets even better! Both this Manon, live from La Scala in June of 1969 (mine is on Frequenz, but another performance from that run is also on other labels) and the studio recording of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (on Decca, 1992) star Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni…so conjure this: if a live recording of Pavarotti and Freni in Manon Lescaut exists (I do not know that it does) and you could find it (clearly I haven’t or I’d not have written the first part of the sentence), you’d more easily equalize the recorded sound picture, especially if they were from about the same period in their careers. Anyway, enjoy.
The operas aside, the story of the Chevalier Des Grieux and Manon Lescaut attracts me because of their unbridled passion for one another, like that of Rodolfo and Mimi: young, free, artless, uninhibited. I see her as naturally beautiful, smiling, positive, frivolous perhaps, certainly not wise in matters of household finances, but then how could she be, not calculating, not manipulative, nor falsely seductive, even if, arguably, Massenet paints her somewhat as such in the St. Sulpice scene. Yes she repeatedly gets beaten down, forced into situations that cruelly demean her, but each time she gets back up on her feet before the final count. Des Grieux is naïve but genuine in his words and actions; his expression of his feelings are all unambiguous in his love for her, even when troubling circumstances interrupt.
Their fate is to be worn down gradually, literally crushed by an oppressive social structure dominated by men of wealth and rank, represented by Des Grieux's father and Manon's rich and abusive men. Common women, but arguably women in general, had no chance really. So what else is new? Interesting that the last two Met productions of Massenet’s Manon, the earlier one by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, new in 1987, and now the current one by Laurant Pelly, new in 2012, have Manon’s dying breaths in the final scene occur in areas of refuse or emptiness. In the Ponnelle her life ends at more or less a dump along a riverbank or maybe the railroad tracks below the elevated roadway, the sort you'd see from MetroNorth as you approach Manhattan, cluttered with cast-off garbage, ample graffiti if a wall is available, you even see trash down the slopes from the backyards of properties in Connecticut; in the new Pelly production her life ends in an empty thoroughfare where she’s been dragged in and kicked nearly to death by ‘gentlemen’ before Des Grieux can intercede.
The story of Manon...used, abused, refused.
As for Des Grieux, once he strays from the family's plan he becomes cast off from his stratum of society, therefore more or less in the same boat as Manon and her brother Lescaut. All of his borrowings, cheating, scheming and lying have only one aim: to support his only love Manon and himself, to allow them to live, love, thrive, and maybe even convince his father that she is for the best reasons his chosen bride. In the end of the screenplay (though not at all in Prévost) Des Grieux renounces any inheritance after his father’s death and then, at Rononcour's advice while in Calais, travels to Prussia, seeking Voltaire, but barely misses him, so then ventures to Voltaire’s cooperative at Ferney in the south of France just west of the Swiss border (it all could work with the dates I've chosen), where he spends the end of his days, past the French Revolution, helping the less fortunate and victims of religious persecution. He has a good soul, he does, as does she.
* And so the screenplay: The Manon Project is in part to celebrate the Met’s new Manon Lescaut, but also in part about the screenplay. The genesis of the latter is as follows: my first notes for the project date back to 2007, after I completed the first draft of the screenplay A Vow Unbroken. Manon was well in mind between all of the final revisions of Vow, other fiction projects, my research and work, and all of my twice yearly opera lecture series, life, too, of course...I gave it a green light and cranked it up to a more concentrated level this past summer (2015) before and after the family vacation at the Jersey Shore. The actual Manon screenplay was begun on July 20, 2015, the Monday after we returned; the first draft was finished on August 8, a bit longer than it took me for the first draft of Vow, but, making notes of amendments as I wrote the first, I started the second draft immediately, thus far the only rewrite, finishing it on September 11, 2015. There is another major plot twist that I need to add in the next rewrite: it's not actually in Prévost, but implied, and happily not too extensive. However, the rewrite is not yet in my project time-queue, given OperaMetro and the 2015-2016 opera season, nor, during the overhaul of OperaMetro, did it happen in summer of 2016...but it wll, and then the Manon screenplay will be done.
Gentle reader! Might you know of any screen agents interested in two fine screenplays adapted from classic literary fiction? Or a well respected director or producer who might like a good project. Reply to email@example.com! I say two because A Vow Unbroken is up for grabs too. It’s based on Alessandro Manzoni’s I promessi sposi, Verdi's cherished author, for whom he wrote the Requiem. Vow is another love child. Ciao.
JRS, started in early September, but finally finished during the blizzard of January 23-24, 2016, well maybe a little tinkering on Feb. 1. Keep cozy! Practically spring outside now. Re posted in a blog page August 1, 2016.