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Opera Essentials: Manon Lescaut

A quick guide to Puccini's first triumph.

By Kate Hopkins (Content Producer (Opera and Music))

22 May 2014 at 4.12pm | Comment on this article

The Story Begins…

The young Chevalier des Grieux and the beautiful Manon Lescaut elope to Paris. There, Manon soon abandons Des Grieux for a rich elderly protector. It’s not long before she feels nostalgic for her former lover; but could she give up her life of luxury for him?

A Story for Our Times

Jonathan Kent’s production draws parallels between Manon’s story and aspects of our own age, including voyeurism and the commercialization of sex. Paul Brown’s designs set Manon’s story in a modern world, but with references to the often misleading glamour of the 18th century.

Puccini’s First Big Success

Manon Lescaut had a tortuous genesis, from its beginnings (when Puccini’s publisher Ricordi tried to persuade him not to write an opera on the same subject as Massenet’s Manon) through countless arguments between Puccini and his librettists, one of whom quit the project. However, the premiere on 1 February 1893 at the Teatro Regio, Turin, was a triumph, and the opera’s subsequent success at theatres round Europe made Puccini a rich man. 

Desperate Passion

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, like Massenet’s Manon, was inspired by the Abbé Prévost’s L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. Puccini structured his opera very differently from Massenet's, omitting the lovers’ initial happy idyll in Paris, and concentrating in Acts III and IV on Manon’s deportation to America and her agonizing death in the Louisiana desert. Generally the mood is darker in Puccini’s opera; Puccini wrote that he would treat the story ‘like an Italian, with desperate passion’. 

Puccini’s Most Wagnerian Opera

Puccini much admired Wagner, whose influence is clear in Manon Lescaut in the melodies that weave between the voices and orchestra, the rich orchestral textures, chromatic harmony and use of recurrent motifs. However, Puccini always maintained his originality. Many of the opera’s arias, including Des Grieux’s ‘Donna non vidi mai’ and Manon’s ‘In quelle trine morbide’, contain a lyricism distinctive from Wagner. 

Manon Lescaut runs 17 June–7 July 2014. Tickets are still available.
The production is generously supported by Rolex, with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE, Lord and Lady Laidlaw, Mrs Philip Kan, Marina Kulishova, Mrs Trevor Swete, Quentin Holland, Mercedes T. Bass, Bruce Kovner, the American Friends of Covent Garden and The Manon Lescaut Production Syndicate.

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