Manon and the seductive allure of courtesans and pleasure
A look at the 19th-century fascination with the fallen woman.
17 December 2013 at 4.07pm | Comment on this article
Massenet’s exquisite opera Manon was written in 1882, at the height of the period known as the Belle Époque. Laurent Pelly’s Royal Opera production takes that world of lavish luxury as its setting, in response to the intense focus Massenet places on his capricious heroine. Massenet’s Manon is quite distinct from the heroine of the 1731 novel by Abbé Prévost that inspired the opera, a moralistic tale tracking the fateful passion of the young Chevalier Des Grieux for a bad girl. As Kate Hopkins writes in the programme book accompanying the production, Massenet was following ‘the 19th-century fascination with the fallen woman’
‘Prostitution was one of the most discussed and controversial subjects of the era. Painters (particularly in France) depicted prostitutes and courtesans in various guises, the most famous example perhaps Manet’s Olympia (1863). Many writers, particularly in England and France, explored the prostitute, the courtesan, the seduced girl and the adulterous wife in their novels. In her progress from flirtatious girl via glamorous courtesan to wretched prisoner Massenet’s Manon displays similarities to a wide range of heroines in 19th-century fiction. All have one characteristic in common: a love of pleasure that leads them to make disastrous choices.’
Elsewhere in the programme book, historian Kate Hickman writes ‘The Parisian courtesan had become the ultimate luxury good. While the principal part of her trade took place in the bedroom, it was never only about sex. The great courtesan’s art was about theatre, about extravagance, about wildly conspicuous consumption: a piece of performance art long before that term was ever invented.
‘Manon could have been any one of thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of young women who contributed to the sexual economy of 19th-century France. This extraordinary world, or half-world – the demi-monde, in Dumas’ eloquent phrase – was a vast shadowland of women who, with varying degrees of business sense, traded sexual favours for money. They ranged from the filles de joie of the lowliest bordellos to the most famous courtesans, so luxurious – so expensive – that a new term altogether had to be coined to describe them. These women – the Grandes horizontales as they became known – were the stars of their day. Famous, independent, wealthy beyond dreams, they were written about, emulated, desired and excoriated, in about equal measure.’
Kate Hickman goes on to describe the courtesans’ spending habits: ‘Cora Pearl, the celebrated “English Beauty” of the Second Empire, is only one of a number of courtesans who is alleged to have had herself served up ‘au naturel’ upon a platter, the pièce de résistance at one of her own dinner parties (a strategic sprig of parsley is included in some versions). This story, and others like it – the bath filled with vintage champagne, the marrons glacés (in another version, oranges) wrapped in 1,000 franc notes – may or may not have been literally true; but what is certain is that the courtesan’s job was to spend. And spend they did: not only on clothes and jewels, but on acquiring the best chefs, the finest wines, the most outrageously expensive hothouse flowers.’
The full articles ‘Courtesans: The Real Story’ by Kate Hickman and ‘Destroyed by Pleasure’ by Kate Hopkins are available in the programme book that accompanies Manon, on sale in the theatre at performance times and from the ROH Shop. The Royal Opera’s production of Manon runs from 14 January to 4 February 2014. Tickets are still available.