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The story of Manon Lescaut had all the ingredients of a smash hit opera.

The Breakthrough Opera

 

By the spring of 1889, the Italian publishing magnate Giulio Ricordi must have been starting to wonder whether his faith in Giacomo Puccini had been misplaced. The talented boy from Lucca was now 32 years old, but his only notable achievements to date were two tepidly- received operas and a scandalous elopement with his married piano student.

Ricordi remained steadfast, however, continuing to encourage (and bankroll) him. But when Puccini came to him with the announcement that his next piece would be an adaptation of the Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel Manon Lescaut, Ricordi was less than enthused. Jules Massenet’s operatic version had received its premiere only six years earlier and was adored by audiences the world over. To Ricordi, it seemed a fool’s errand to tread the same territory, regardless of the composer’s assurance that “a woman like Manon can have more than one lover”.

Eventually, Ricordi deferred to his protégé’s self-belief, but refused to capitulate to Puccini’s demand that he write his own libretto so that “no fool of a librettist” could ruin it. Puccini’s querulous opposition to several collaborators meant that the text was cobbled together by five librettists in all, until somehow, after three seemingly interminable years, the opera was finally put to stage.

1 February 1893 marked the premiere performance of Manon Lescaut, a triumph with more than 30 curtain calls for cast and composer alike. This fiery, passionate interpretation of Prévost’s novel had excursions across the continent; the investment made by the house of Ricordi had clearly been a shrewd one.

It was his first great success, but what is it about Manon Lescaut that marked Puccini’s turning point from promising youngster to global phenomenon?

APO Music Director Giordano Bellincampi believes the answer has a few layers. “First of all, Puccini was intrigued by the story, but also, Manon Lescaut gave him the chance to write something very musically modern.”

In his telling of Manon & Des Grieux’s doomed affair, Puccini more or less turns his back on the segmented bel canto structures that had been the backbone of Italian opera for more than a century. As Bellincampi says, “They held little interest to him. Puccini was much, much more interested in the music of Richard Wagner.”

Though the lush orchestration, densely chromatic harmonies and complete integration of music and drama owe much to the Wagnerian invasion, the piece is far from derivative. “This is truly original, personal Puccini,” Bellincampi says. “I think Act I, for example, is one of the most sensual acts in all of music history. It is not perfect from a structure point of view, but it’s very youthful; this is how a teenager sees life. Later on in his composing life he gets far more perfect, far more calculating, if you think about La Bohème but especially later in Tosca and Madama Butterfly. It is perfect in every way. Manon Lescaut is not perfect in that sense, but for me it is maybe even more interesting because of that.”

July’s performance of Manon Lescaut is presented in association with New Zealand Opera, and NZ Opera General Director Stuart Maunder also acknowledges that the piece, however glorious, is not without its issues. “It’s undeniably dramaturgically flawed; most of the action takes place off stage, we never get to see the couple when they’re happy, and the final act is set in a desert, for God’s sake!”

But in remembering his first experience of the work as a young stage manager watching from the wings, he can’t help but acknowledge its power. “What I took away at the end of the night was this tidal wave of emotion; it’s inescapable.”

APO’s opera in concert performance will incorporate stage direction from Maunder, who also staged the singers in 2016’s Otello. Both Bellincampi and Maunder agree that the piece is a perfect candidate for an opera in concert performance. “It’s a gorgeous score,” says Bellincampi, “and it will be a treat for our audiences to really experience the interplay between the words and the vocal lines of the singers and the various instrumentations.”

Aside from being relieved that he won’t need to find sand for the last act, Maunder is delighted that Aucklanders will get to revel in this extraordinary music. “It hasn’t been performed in Auckland since 1984, and to be doing it with these incredible singers and the APO in full flight will be something pretty special.”

Puccini’s first masterpiece remains timeless and compelling. The characters here aren’t gods or kings, but normal, desperately flawed people. He puts his full operatic forces behind them not because they have territory to fight for or nobility to protect, but to give voice to the emotions that besiege us all.

After all, the purpose he believed his music needed to serve was simple: “To make the world weep – therein lies everything.


- Tabatha McFadyen

 

Originally published in Phil News 2017 Summer Edition 

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