Italian Opera Festival – Manon Lescaut – Giacomo Puccini
English National Opera
I was present at the opening opera of the ENO’s Italian Opera Season on 30 October 2000 when I saw Puccini’s Manon Lescaut with the orchestra conducted by Paul Daniel. The libretto is by Marco Praga, Domenico Olivia and Luigi Illica and it was first performed in Turin in 1893. Like Massenet’s French opera Manon Puccini’s Italian one is base on the Abbe Prevost’s novel, but unlike Massenet’s version in which Manon dies on the road to Le Havre, Puccini’s has a “geographical correct” death scene in the desolate plains of New Orleans where Manon has been exiled for immorality. The work was Puccini’s third opera and his first major success.
Outside an inn, Edmondo entertains his fellow students with a mock ‘madrigal’. The Chevalier des Grieux appears and the conversation turns to love and women. The coach from Arras arrives bearing Manon, her brother Lescaut and their travelling companion Geronte. Manon immediately captivates Des Grieux and, when Lescaut and Geronte go into the inn, he engages her in conversation. He discovers that she is bound for a convent and the life of a nun. Before joining her brother, Manon arranges to meet Des Grieux.
The elderly Geronte also has desires on Manon. He asks the innkeeper for a coach with which he might spirit her away. But Edmondo overhears Geronte’s scheming and warns Des Grieux. The lovers elope. Geronte is furious, but Lescaut assures him that his sister will soon need a rich protector.
Manon is now Geronte’s mistress. Despite her elegant surroundings, she confesses to her brother that she yearns for the modest life she once shard with Des Grieux. After a group of musicians perform a madrigal Geronte has written in Manon’s honour Lescaut leaves to fetch Des Grieux. During Manon’s dancing lesson, Geronte arrives with friends who shower her with complicments. The visitors depart and Manon is left alone. Des Grieux enters and the lovers are reunited. Geronte unexpectedly returns. Manon taunts him before he leaves outraged and threatening revenge. Manon and Des Grieux decide to flee; but Des Grieux is dismayed by Manon’s thoughts at abandoning so much wealth and comfort. Lescaut bursts in and warns them that Geronte has ordered Manon’s arrest as a thief and a prostitute. Manon’s determination to gather up her jewels delays their escape. She is arrested.
The second half of the opera takes place at Le Havre, in a square near the harbour. Manon has been imprisoned and awaits deportation to America. Lescaut plans to secure her escape by bribing a guard. Des Grieux is allowed to talk to Manon. A shot is heard: the escape plan has failed. The roll call of the deportees begins and one by one the prostitutes, including Manon, are led to the ship. Des Grieux begs the ship’s captain to allow him aboard and follow his love. Now in the desert, Manon and Des Grieux are exhausted. She sends Des Grieux to look for shelter and water. Alone, Manon expresses her fear of dying in such desolate surroundings. Des Grieux returns to find her delirious. Assuring him of her love, Manon dies.
Manon Lescaut was performed by the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, who brings out Manon’s vulnerability and is much more believable than the tiresome Manon usually presented. Lescaut, her brother (a Sergeant of the Royal Guard) it was performed by David Kempster. And the Chevalier des Grieux by Martin Thompson – it was great to have a tenor at the Coliseum with such ringing Italianate top notes.
The best thing in Keith Warner’s production was the prostitutes’ roll-call at Le Havre with the girls in their torn “Glam-rags” parading round the stalls’ walkway past the repulsive chorus.
There’s sleaze, love, heartbreak and death in Puccini’s gloriously energising score. Very effective is the ghostly while make-up of the guests at a party giving their faces the effect of death masts or plaster casts. In fact, for this production, some of the fabrics had to be plastered in order to achieve the stiffened, decaying look that the designer wanted. This and many other skills to clothes of the production are carried out at ENO’s Production Wardrobe. In fact a factory – in Lilian Baylis House, ENO’s site in Hampstead: a lot more then just rows of sewing machines it involves a vast team of cutters, costumiers, milliners and dyers as well as machinists.