Opera Essentials: Manon
A quick guide to Massenet's classic opera.
9 January 2014 at 10.23am | Comment on this article
The Story Begins…
When the beautiful schoolgirl Manon Lescaut meets the young Chevalier des Grieux, it is love at first sight. But Manon also adores money and beautiful things. Which will prove stronger: her desire for a life of luxury or her love for Des Grieux?
A Victim of Men
Laurent Pelly’s eye-catching production is set during the Belle Époque, the period in which Massenet wrote this opera. This was an era when many courtesans thrived, but also one in which a high proportion of men viewed independent-minded women with hostility and suspicion. For Pelly, Manon is both a victim and a manipulator of men.
At the Centre of the Story
Massenet based his opera on Abbé Prévost’s hugely popular novel L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731). Prévost’s story is told wholly from Des Grieux’s point of view, and is a cautionary tale showing how obsessive love can bring a man to the point of ruin. Massenet alters the story substantially; Manon is the central character for long stretches of his opera, and he makes it clear that her love for Des Grieux – despite her reckless pleasure-seeking – is genuine and passionate.
Massenet was one of the great melodists of 19th-century opera, and Manon contains some of his finest arias and duets. Highlights include Manon’s flamboyant Gavotte in Act III scene 1, Des Grieux’s anguished ‘Ah! fuyez, douce image’ in Act III scene 2 and Manon and Des Grieux’s passionate reunion, ‘N’est-ce plus ma main’ in the same scene and tender duet in Act V. Other musical highlights include a neoclassical ballet in Act III.
A Singers’ Favourite
Manon was a great success from its premiere, and remained in the repertory even when Massenet’s other works were rarely performed. The roles of Manon and Des Grieux have been popular with many leading singers, including Mary Garden, Nellie Melba, Victoria de los Ángeles, Beverly Sills, Anna Netrebko and Natalie Dessay; and Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Nicolai Gedda, Alfredo Kraus and Vittorio Grigolo.