At 129 rue Saint Antoine in the Marais district of Paris there is a small bakery and pastry shop with the marvelous name Aux Désirs de Manon, referring to the heroine of the novel Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost (1697-1763) — a novel which was the inspiration for operas by Auber, Massenet, Puccini and Henze.
Although the bakery gets generally good reviews on various websites (aside from the occasional grouch who claims it used to be much better years or decades ago), I must admit I have never actually bought anything there (I’m not a big fan of French pastries, which tend to be too sugary for my taste), but the name of the shop always makes me smile when I ride or walk past. The charming and disarming Manon Lescaut, who had strong desires and few inhibitions about indulging them, would no doubt have loved this shop if it had existed in her century.
Because the novel was first published in 1731, I began reading it with considerable trepidation, thinking it would be in some sort of outmoded French and I would have to look up every third word to have a chance of understanding it.
Well, I needed have worried. Either the French language hasn’t changed drastically since 1731, or the French I learned was an outmoded version to begin with, in any case the novel was a fairly easy read and there were notes in the back of the book to clear up those few words and references that are really outdated. Of course it helped that I already knew the general outline of the story from having seen three operas about it, all of them more than once.
Daniel-François-Esprit Auber (1782-1871) was, as far as I know, the first composer to write an opera about Manon Lescaut — but his opera is rarely performed today, and I’ve never seen it. One aria from Auber’s Manon Lescaut is still often sung in recitals, namely “C’est l’histoire amoureuse”, as sung for example in this recording by Joan Sutherland.
Of Auber’s forty or so operas, the only one I have seen up to now is Le Domino Noir, which I have discussed in a separate post. (Most people today know ‘Auber’ only as the name of a subway station in Paris on the RER A line.)
Another French composer, Jules Massenet (1842-1912), wrote an opera about Manon Lescaut that premiered in 1884, 28 years after Auber’s. Massenet’s title was just Manon, without the last name, perhaps to avoid confusion with Auber’s title. The one-name title was important to Massenet, and he always corrected people who said it with both names.
I’ve seen Massenet’s Manon several times in two different productions. The first was in 1994 at the State Theater on Gärtnerplatz in Munich, Germany. I don’t remember much about this production, except that it was in German translation (as were most operas at Gärtnerplatz at that time) and that the little table in the second act was painted red. Manon sings a sad song to this little table about how sorry she feels to be leaving and how she is going to miss the table and their little apartment and especially her impoverished young lover, the Chevalier Des Grieux, whom she really loves even though she has decided to leave him and live a life of luxury with a rich elderly nobleman, Monsieur de Brétigny.
Nearly a decade later the Frankfurt Opera came out with a new production (in the original French) of Massenet’s Manon, which I saw several times in 2003 and 2004. This was a rather heavy-handed staging by Calixto Bieito, but I liked it because it was set in Las Vegas (appropriate because gambling is important to the plot in several places) and because I knew most of the singers in the premiere. Juanita Lascarro was Manon, Earle Patriarco was her cousin Lescaut, Magnus Baldvinsson was Des Grieux’s father, Hans-Jürgen Lazar was Guillot, Simon Bailey was Monsieur de Brétigny (which was funny because he was 31 at the time and his character was meant to be more than twice that age), Barbara Zechmeister was Pousette, Atala Schöck was Javotte and Gérard Lavalle was the hotelkeeper.
In 1893, a mere nine years after Massenet’s premiere, another Manon Lescaut opera appeared, this time in Italian by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). One of the program booklets said that Puccini’s publisher, Ricordi, had advised against this project, because Massenet’s version was so successful, but Puccini insisted on composing it anyway, saying something like: ‘Why shouldn’t there be two operas about Manon? A woman like Manon can have more than one lover.’
But he did take care to include several scenes from the novel that Massenet had omitted, and omit some that Massenet had included, so the parallelism would not be so great. And he called his opera Manon Lescaut, using both her first and last names instead of only her first.
As it turned out, Massenet’s Manon and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut have both remained in the repertoire. Both are still performed quite regularly, although Puccini’s version is the more popular of the two. According to operabase.com, Massenet’s Manon was performed 61 times worldwide during the 2018-2019 season, whereas Puccini’s Manon Lescaut had 85 performances during the same season.
I’ve seen Puccini’s Manon Lescaut several times in two different Frankfurt productions — 1999 by Alfred Kirchner and 2019 by Alex Ollé — and once in an HD cinema transmission live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Sometimes I find myself getting muddled about which scenes come in whose opera. The scene with Manon singing a tearful farewell to the little table comes only in Massenet’s version. Puccini’s version, on the other hand, is the one with the mirror scene, when the rich old tax collector catches Manon in the act of leaving him with her handsome young lover Des Grieux. Manon hands the old man a mirror and says: “Love? Love? My good sir, here! Look at yourself! If I am wrong, tell me frankly! And then look at us.” (This scene fell flat in the Met transmission, since all three of the singers were middle-aged.)
Puccini’s opera is also the one with the harbor scene, where Manon, along with other women of ill-repute, is forced to board a ship to take her into exile in the French colony of Louisiana, and Des Grieux persuades the captain to take him along, too. Massenet doesn’t have this scene, because in his version Manon already dies by the roadside in France (in the arms of Des Grieux, of course), before even reaching the harbor.
Here’s the trailer from the Frankfurt Opera in 2019 for
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, with the marvelous Asmik Grigorian as Manon.
In 1950-51 a German composer, Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012), wrote a modern opera about Des Grieux and Manon Lescaut, under the title Boulevard Solitude. This was Henze’s first full-length opera, though he had written several shorter ones before. His librettist was Grete Weil (1906-1999), a German-Jewish writer who had survived the Holocaust by hiding out in the Netherlands like Anne Frank (though she was 23 years older than Anne Frank and her hiding place was not discovered).
Boulevard Solitude had its premiere in Hannover in 1952, and went on to be performed in at least 38 different productions in Germany, Italy, France, England, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Spain, Wales and the USA. The 30th of these productions was in Frankfurt, conducted by Bernhard Kontarsky and staged by Nicolas Brieger; I saw it at least four times, in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2002, always with Janet Williams as Manon.
My most vivid memory of this staging is the moment Manon and Des Grieux first see each other across a crowded concourse in a bustling railway station, with lots of people hurrying this way and that. The moment the two of them make eye contact, everyone else on the stage freezes, holding whatever position they happen to be in. They all remain motionless as Des Grieux approaches Manon and says: “Mademoiselle, do you mind if I ask you: Are you also going to Paris?”
The only other opera by Hans Werner Henze that I have seen so far was Das verratene Meer (The betrayed sea) in Frankfurt in 2002, with Pia-Marie Nilsson, Peter Marsh, Claudio Otelli and Johannes Martin Kränzle. I’ve never seen Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers, for instance, or Der junge Lord or The Bassarids.
For June and July 2020, the Frankfurt Opera was planning a new production of Henze’s The Prince of Homburg, based on the play by Heinrich von Kleist, but that production, like so many others, has had to be cancelled or at least postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
My lead photo on this post is from 2007. I wrote the text in 2020.