MET Opera House building–Lincoln Center/Wednesday October 2nd, 2019.
This week, friends, welcome back to the MET Opera, to discover a beautiful, epic, erotic, yet desperately tragic, love tale; that has captured the audiences’s minds and hearts, since the 18th century; and which still, incredibly, resonates powerfully today, for many.
How about it!
And what wonderful singers we were given to applaud, last Wednesday!
An astoundingly beautiful, joyful, and cristalline voice, from exceptional American soprano, Lisette Oropesa, as the moving “Manon”; in love with her “Chevalier des Grieux”; sang wonderfully powerfully, by delightfully manly, American tenor, Michael Fabiano!
Let’s dive into some context, some captivating context, regarding this enchanting “Manon” opera!
“Manon” is based on an iconic, 18th century, sizzling, romantic albeit tragic, heart-wrenching, French, love novel (1731), from Abbé Prévost, (more on him in a second), which was such a masterpiece, that it inspired, in the following decades and centuries, a variety of hugely incredibly influential works of art around the world, across different genres.
Let me astound you:
In the 19th century alone, from France and Italy, we can count three unbelievably beautiful and majestic operas, based on Prévost outstanding torrid, dark, and yet moving love story: two by French composers: “Manon Lescaut” by Auber (1856), and “Manon” by Massenet (1884), and one by an Italian composer: “Manon Lescaut”, by Puccini (1893).
In addition, numerous dramatic and poetic novels influenced by Prévost’s epic novel, can be found across various parts of the world also, and I’ll just mention a few examples: from France, Dumas’ “La Dame aux camélias” (1848), from Russia, Turgenev’s “Faust” (1858), from Austria, Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in furs” (1870), and from the United Kingdom, Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1890); and in the 20th century, we can find again, many new works influenced by Prévost’s significant and blazing novel: two dramas: one from the Czech Republic, and one from Germany; various movies from France, Italy and Germany; and to me, two of the most important masterpieces, are the following: a particularly gripping American movie, “Camille” by Cukor, from 1936, which is obviously incredibly influenced by Dumas’ and Prévost’s aforementioned passionate novels.
Let’s watch a clip:
And a few decades later, the second masterpiece, is a wonderfully beautiful and expressive, 1974 British ballet, “Manon” stunningly choreographed by Mac Millan, based in parts, on Massenet’s “Manon” opera.
Let’s now listen, to what the Royal Ballet, has to say about this story:
And even in the 21st century, this Prévost astounding novel, can still be found resonating in many works of art, around the world; including in Japan, across mangas, a pop song, and musical theatre.
So for now, let’s focus on the most iconic French opera, for many (not just in my opinion); let’s focus on Massenet’s “Manon”; based on the extraordinary Prévost novel.
What is it about?
Massenet’s “Manon” opera, beautifully adapted in five acts, with Meilhac and Gille as librettists, tells us an incredibly heart-racing story, about true love; a life-long love between a delightful, young girl turned “courtesan”, to indulge in her addiction to luxury; and a smitten, poetic, and pure-hearted “Chevalier”, whose lives are ultimately ruined, by her obsession with a “grand” lifestyle.
And what makes this story particularly moving to me, (and I think, to many others), is that the incredibly beautiful and deep love, between Manon and her Chevalier, is real; and nourishing; albeit filled at times, with mistakes of course, because they are human; and yet, mistakes they constantly forgive each other, which is not unusual, when one truly loves another; but not always easy to do; and of course, the only way to go, when such a love is encountered in life, a love, that profound and authentic.
And this story, of Manon and her Chevalier; because of their incredible love for each other, is particularly gripping, because one senses, that their unique love story, could end delightfully; if only her addiction to luxury were conquered (it could be an addiction to other things of course, as any strong addictions, can end up being, terribly damaging; if not overcome; and it can always be, fortunately, if one wants to, badly enough).
So her addiction to a highly luxurious lifestyle, would need, in my mind, not only to be controlled, but transmuted to something constructive, like holding a decent and well (enough) compensated job; and if both her Chevalier and her, then engaged, in a responsible, yet wonderful and rewarding life, they could evidently, also, not only live their passion for each other, in peace; but also sustain a fun and exciting lifestyle as well; together, and with all of their loved ones, friends included!
And that doesn’t necessarily entail, living in Pharaonic splendor; which anyway, may not be particularly easy, anyway; because as one also knows, with great spending power, comes even more responsibility!
But let’s get back to Manon and her Chevalier’s story.
Yet, I think the real reason this story has captivated so many, across the centuries; is also the heady, panting, arousing stuff, their true love for each other is also, fortunately, made of; as well; despite their shortcomings at times.
Because of course, how fun, exciting and joyful!!!!
So hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen, as this unique moving tale, is one, filled with greatness at times, and with potential for additional greatness at others; and happily, sizzling at times, even riveting; and yet, at others also, filled with tender, romantic and dramatic episodes, as opera plots, often are.
Although, thankfully, operas do end well, at times, which is even more exciting and encouraging, I find; as it means, the heroes went the extra mile to achieve happiness!
It can be done!
So let’s get to it!
This historic context I just gave you, about Abbé Prévost’s 18th century, hugely influential and iconic French novel “L’histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut”, is one I think, Massenet had in mind, when he decided to adapt it to opera, as already, during his time, “Manon”‘s love story, was almost as iconic as Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”.
So I do think, Massenet intuited, that by adapting Prévost’s novel, he would get attention from both his peers, and opera fans; as this story, (as mentioned above), had already inspired huge masterpieces around Europe.
But first, let’s focus on the mysterious and talented, Abbé Prévost. Despite his faith, the Abbé Prévost was a man, tormented by his senses, and failed love affairs, which explains why he wrote so well, about life, and love’s subtle intricacies.
Although I would say to the Abbé, that any failed relationship can always help one, become a better person, and sometimes also, can flourish into wonderfully rewarding friendships.
Yet, D.C. Moylon suggested a reason behind Prévost’s apparent inability to stay put: ‘The sanctity of the cloister was no protection to our young novice against the rebellious senses; with a heart too open to vain and illusory impressions, and a naturally fiery temperament, he panted for liberty’.
Let’s now read, a few quotes from Prévost, so you can catch a glimpse of his own rich, and unusual personality; filled with, sometimes dark, and thankfully also, a few luminous terrestrial and celestial longings:
“One must count ones riches by the means one has to satisfy his desires.”
“Lying gets all the recompenses, then, while despair and loneliness are the rewards of constancy and fidelity.”
“The fidelity I expect of you is that of the heart”
“There is nothing more glorious—nothing that does more honour to true virtue, than the confidence with which one approaches a friend of tried integrity.”
And let’s read a few other quotes in French this time, which are thankfully, way more romantic.
“Ah ! les expressions ne rendent jamais qu’à demi les sentiments du cœur.”
“De la manière dont nous sommes faits, il est certain que notre félicité consiste dans le plaisir; je défie qu’on s’en forme une autre idée; or le cœur n’a pas besoin de se consulter longtemps pour sentir que, de tous les plaisirs, les plus doux sont ceux de l’Amour.”
And my favorite of course:
“On ne ferait pas une divinité de l’Amour, s’il n’opérait souvent des prodiges.”
A paradoxical personality, if you ask me, this Abbé!
So, let me give you a summarized reminder, of what “Manon”‘s opera plot, is about:
In a nutshell, this 5 act opera, depicts a heart-wrenching love story, between a beautiful girl turned “courtesan”, Manon, and an idealistic and smitten young man, the Chevalier des Grieux; whose lives will be broken down by Manon’s obsession with luxury, unlucky circumstances, and which in the end, will lead, unforgivingly, to tragedy.
Let me give you a few more details: the opera opens in Amiens, where Manon, a young, stunning, and delightful young woman, is to be accompanied by a cousin of hers, to a convent; because of her joyful nature, and love of pleasure, deemed “dangerous” by her family. As she expresses her delight, at the idea of a first journey away from home; her beauty catches the eye of two wealthy, older men, Guillot and Bretigny; themselves surrounded, by lovely joyful, lighthearted “courtesans” nearby (I love their charming pet names “Poussette”, “Javotte”, and Rosette”), and whose wealth and “easy living” lifestyle, Manon admires, from afar. Guillot offers to take her to Paris. Yet, Manon dismisses Guillot; and is then scolded by her cousin, who disapproves of her talking to strangers; as such behavior, would tarnish her reputation. Left alone by her cousin for a little while, Manon then meets, the Chevalier des Grieux, who has just missed a coach to Paris. Des Grieux falls instantly, deeply in love, with her beauty and charming personality: let’s now read the charming words, the Chevalier has for his Manon:
“Enchanteresse, vous êtes la maitresse de mon coeur. Nous vivrons à Paris tous les deux, et nos coeurs amoureux enchainés l’un à l’autre, pour toujours réunis, n’y vivront que des jours bénis”.
How poetic, and unbelievably romantic; perhaps a tad idealistic, but why not!
Rapidly, the lovebirds decide to escape/elope to Paris, in Guillot’s coach.
And Guillot vows revenge.
By Act 2, the two, now lovers, have started living together, for a short while; and enjoy a happy and simple life. Des Grieux, Manon’s Chevalier, writes his father, for permission to marry Manon.
Let’s read what her Chevalier, thinks of his Manon, and how he asks her to become his wife:
“On l’appelle Manon; elle eut hier seize ans. En elle tout séduit, la beauté, la jeunesse, la grâce! Nulle voix n’a de plus doux accents, Nul regard, plus de charme avec plus de tendresse. Nul regard, plus de charme avec plus de tendresse!
MANON, s’arrêtant de lire. Est-ce vrai? Moi, je n’en sais rien; Mais je sais que vous m’aimez bien!
DES GRIEUX, avec élan. Vous aimer? … Manon … je t’adore!
MANON, se dégageant. Allons, monsieur, lisons encore! …
DES GRIEUX, lisant. “Comme l’oiseau qui suit en tous lieux le printemps, Sa jeune âme à la vie est ouverte sans cesse; Sa lèvre en fleur sourit et parle par instants Au zéphyr parfumé qui passe et la caresse!”
DES GRIEUX ET MANON, répétant. Au zéphyr parfumé qui passe et la caresse! Réfléchissant. Il ne te suffît pas alors de nous aimer?
DES GRIEUX, avec enthousiasme. Non! je veux que tu sois ma femme!
MANON, rassurée. Tu le veux? …
DES GRIEUX. Je le veux, et de toute mon âme!
MANON. Embrasse-moi donc, Chevalier.
But then, things turn dark for the two love birds:
Manon is then, offered a deal, by her awful “pimp” cousin; after he berates them both, for tarnishing family honor. He entices Manon to abandon her Chevalier, for a life of luxury and comfort with Bretigny; one of the two older wealthy men she met, back in Amiens. Manon hesitates, because she truly loves her Chevalier, but yet, after some thought, this silly goose, (probably because of her youthfulness), gives into her yearning, for a luxurious and pleasurable life in Paris’ high society; despite all sorts of last minute pangs, of pain and guilt.
Let’s now, listen to two beautiful arias, about her renouncing her Chevalier, which are to me the most tormenting and beautiful moments of this opera:
Now, let’s listen to wonderful Dessay, sing it for us with incredible emotion:
And now, let’s listen to the famous “Adieu notre petite table” aria, sang first, with incredible emotion also, by Dessay again; and then equally beautifully, if not more, by stupendous Oropesa.
Get out your box of tissues, you’ll need it.
Devastatingly moving, isn’t it?
Now, let’s listen to it by Oropesa, who sang it as beautifully, last Wednesday, and I can tell you, the audience could barely breathe, in front of such heartbreak:
How achingly beautiful, isn’t it?
By Act 3, the mood has vastly improved, and Manon has become the “darling” of Paris’ high society.
A beautiful ballet is danced for them, which reminds me of course, of wonderful Degas, and his ballerinas, currently, being celebrated as well, in Paris.
Let’s listen to her, as she praises the joys of her “enchanting” luxurious lifestyle.
Yet, when Manon overhears, that her former lover, the Chevalier, is about to enter priesthood; we see a tremendous, instant change, overcome her; and can feel, that Manon still loves, with all her heart, her sweet and wonderfully romantic Chevalier; and seems determined to do something about it: oh boy!
She rushes to the Saint Sulpice church, and as she get’s there, let’s listen to the most beautiful aria by her Chevalier, so heart breaking, about his inescapable love for his Manon, which is still torture for him:
Get your tissues, you’re going to need them again:
Here is the text:
“Ah! fuyez, douce image, Je suis seul! Seul enfin! C’est le moment suprême! Il n’est plus rien que j’aime, que le repos sacré que m’apporte la foi! Oui, j’ai voulu mettre Dieu même, entre le monde et moi! Ah! fuyez, douce image, à mon âme trop chère. Respectez un repos cruellement gagné. Et songez, si j’ai bu dans une coupe amère, que mon coeur l’emplirait de ce qu’il a saigné!
Ah! fuyez! fuyez! loin de moi! Ah! fuyez!
Que m’importe la vie et ce semblant de gloire? Je ne veux que chasser du fond de ma mémoire… Un nom maudit! ce nom… qui m’obsède et pourquoi? J’y vais! Mon Dieu! De votre flamme purifiez mon âme… Et dissipez à sa lueur, l’ombre qui passe encore dans le fond de mon coeur!
Ah! fuyez, douce image, à mon âme trop chère! Ah! fuyez! fuyez! loin de moi! Ah! fuyez! loin de moi! Loin de moi!”
Isn’t it heart breaking?
Now let’s listen to the music, it’s even more heart wrenching:
As her Chevalier/priest-to-be, ends singing this stunning aria, Manon, then appears to him, to ask with all her heart, for forgiveness for her cruelty; and begs him to remember the intensity and strength of their love for each other.
And the incredible, torrid chemistry they share, the strength of the unbelievably, irresistible swooping, stirring, winds of desire, of despair, of love also, at how much they have missed each other; their irrepressible, blazing, lustful need to find each other’s bodies, between them, builds gradually on stage; and then takes off like a raging tornado, a wild fiery bonfire, as they get closer to each other…
And it is just incredible.
And of course evokes, to me another forbidden temptation: from the mini TV series from 1983 “The Thorn birds” by Duke, many of you will remember, this pretty similar scene, which is even worse for these love birds, because Ralph de Bricassart, is actually a priest:
Brace yourselves for what’s coming:
Told you so.
Let’s get back to Manon: her Chevalier and priest-to-be, can’t help himself, and yields thankfully, to his profound love and lust for his Manon; and renounces his vows.
And I actually think that is what the Abbé Prévost probably regretted not doing, in his own life, when he fell in love; which is probably why he allowed his character to do, what he himself couldn’t, and probably should have done, to find lasting happiness.
I won’t get into the bleakness of the end of the story.
Just know that the Chevalier, is ruined by his Manon’s selfish addictive behavior, towards luxury; for whom he gambles away his fortune, wins heavily, is accused of treachery, and is ultimately punished by being arrested, and Manon sent to prison; They will then, see each other one last time, will be able to recall their beautiful past, and forgive each other, and profess undying love to one another; before Manon dies in her chevalier’s loving arms.
Tragic, as opera sometimes can be, of course.
And I just want to share a few wonderful pieces of art, that this opera inspires, to leave us on a wonderfully more optimistic note, because joy, enthusiasm, optimism, and encouragement to see the best in everything, and everyone, and in life; is truly what we all need to share with one another, to keep growing in charm and depth in life.
So here are first a few beautiful “pearls” for Manon and her Chevalier:
First, a beautiful poem by Théophile Gautier, about the majesty of simplicity, purity, and romance; stronger and more powerful than the sophistication of complexity; and that can be found in a stunning, simple daisy, (it could also be a sunflower), as it exudes a naturally, an alluring, dreamy, and zesty, subtle charm; whose wit, joy, and eternal loveliness, will stand the test of time.
Camelias et pâquerettes
On admire les fleurs de serre
Qui loin de leur soleil natal,
Comme des joyaux mis sous verre,
Brillent sous un ciel de cristal.
Sans que les brises les effleurent
De leurs baisers mystérieux,
Elles naissent, vivent et meurent
Devant le regard curieux.
A l’abri de murs diaphanes,
De leur sein ouvrant le trésor,
Comme de belles courtisanes,
Elles se vendent à prix d’or.
La porcelaine de la Chine
Les reçoit par groupes coquets,
Ou quelque main gantée et fine
Au bal les balance en bouquets.
Mais souvent parmi l’herbe verte,
Fuyant les yeux, fuyant les doigts,
De silence et d’ombre couverte,
Une fleur vit au fond des bois.
Un papillon blanc qui voltige,
Un coup d’oeil au hasard jeté,
Vous fait surprendre sur sa tige
La fleur dans sa simplicité.
Belle de sa parure agreste
S’épanouissant au ciel bleu,
Et versant son parfum modeste
Pour la solitude et pour Dieu.
Sans toucher à son pur calice
Qu’agite un frisson de pudeur,
Vous respirez avec délice
Son âme dans sa fraîche odeur.
Et tulipes au port superbe,
Camélias si chers payés,
Pour la petite fleur sous l’herbe
En un instant, sont oubliés !
And now, let’s listen to a beautiful song by Elvis, for Manon and her Chevalier:
And finally, to end this long post, one last thought for our two love birds: instead of going after a luxurious lifestyle, without contributing anything to society, both Manon and her Chevalier, could try holding a job!
For the Chevalier, teaching literature, could be a great idea, just like in this wonderful movie by Weir (1989), “Dead Poets Society”:
And for Manon, why not become an actress, a dancer, or a singer, like Rita, to pay hommage to her beauty!
Eternal butterflies 😊