Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s first major
operatic success before his ‘magic trio’ – La Bohème,
Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Lescaut was first
performed in 1893 while Bohème was premiered in 1896.
Massenet had already based his successful opera Manon
on the Abbé Prevost’s famous novel. Undaunted, Puccini chose
to concentrate on other episodes of the Abbé’s story about the
downfall of a young innocent man at the hands of the fickle,
grasping, headstrong Manon. Further detail about the Abbé Prevost
novel is given here.
Desmond Heeley’s sets and costumes, for the spacious
Met stage, are superb. Act I has the inn alongside Amiens’ huge
city gates through which a stage and horses are driven delivering
Manon into the story. The most elaborate set is Act II’s extremely
lavish apartment belonging to the old roué Geronte where Manon,
already bored with the good life, yearns for the romance that
she had shared with Des Grieux before she left him because of
his straitened circumstances. The video filming is usually
good but close-ups of the ageing principals can be sometimes
a little cruel especially in Act I where Mattila is supposed
to be a shy teenager. I was also disappointed that the musicians’
madrigal in Act II could barely be heard and the camera rarely
focused on them when they were singing.
Karita Mattila, blessed with a silken expressive
voice and fine control through her range, is a not inconsiderable
actress. Admitting to being 47, Mattila, can still do the splits
in one scene and she enacts, very well, the anti-heroine’s progress.
This she tracks from the innocent (?) on the way to a convent
on her father’s orders - one wonders why and what mischief she
had already wrought to deserve such a fate? - through greedy
charmer to tragic victim. She is the victim of her own “fatal
charms” as Manon, herself expresses it in Act IV as she lies
dying in the American wilderness.
Marcello Giordani, a splendid Des Grieux, is
blessed with no less that four wonderful arias. The first, in
Act I, occurs before he meets his femme fatale and displays
his joie de vivre, and the hope that he will meet his
heart’s desire. For the rest of the opera, after running off
with Manon, we come into contact with his grief, rage, jealousy
The two villains are impressive too. Dwayne Croft
is a most oily, self-serving Lescaut (Manon’s brother) and Dale
Travis looks like a smirking bulldog as the lascivious old galant,
Geronte. By the way, what a master theatrical effect it was
to have Geronte show Manon her greed as displayed in the very
hand mirror that she had earlier held in front of him so that
he could realize his wrinkled, ageing looks.
Shining amongst the minor roles, Sean Panikkar
as the student Edmondo who not only has a most pleasantly-timbred
voice, but also great stage presence.
In between the acts, Renée Fleming interviews,
first, a rather breathless Karita Mattila and between Acts II
and III, a much more expansive Marcello Giordani. She is also
seen in conversation with the stage manager about how the scenery
is changed between acts and how the crew responds when things
go wrong either mechanically or electrically. In one of the
DVD’s bonus features Fleming interviews the animal trainers
responsible for the production’s horses and Manon’s pet dog.
Regarding the available audio recordings of Manon
Lescaut, my top recommendation is the 1993 Decca set, again
conducted by James Levine with the thrilling teaming of Freni
with Pavarotti, superbly backed by the Metropolitan forces:
440 200-2 (2CDs)
Another DVD of Manon Lescaut worth considering
is the TDK release with Maria Guleghina as Manon Lescaut and
José Cura as Des Grieux TDK
DVD VIDEO DVWW-OPMLES.
Regarding Massenet’s opera, Manon, then
my audio CD recommendation is the teaming of Angela Gheorghiu
as Manon and Roberto Alagna as Des Grieux on EMI 3 CDs
And my Massenet DVD recommendation is for Renée
Fleming as Manon and Marcello Alvarez as Des Grieux on
DVD Video DV-OPMANON.
For ballet-lovers, I recommend: Kenneth
MacMillan’s ballet, Manon, with Jennifer Penney as
Manon and Anthony Powell as Des Grieux.
A lavish production of Puccini’s first big operatic
success which I am confident you will enjoy.
see also review by Robert