17 November 2016 at 2.41pm | 4 Comments
Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s first great success – despite a difficult birth. No fewer than seven people worked on the libretto, and none of them found an effective way to condense Abbé Prévost’s novel into the opera Puccini wanted to write. The result leaves out large chunks of the story and in the wrong hands might have led to an operatic mess. Yet from it Puccini created a work of devastating emotional power. How did he do it? We can get a glimpse of the many different elements at play by exploring what, given the rest of Puccini’s work, is one of Manon Lescaut’s most unusual features: its intermezzo, or musical interlude.
Puccini wrote little purely instrumental music. In his operas the orchestra rarely speaks on its own for extended periods – besides the prelude to Edgar and the intermezzo in Suor Angelica there’s little that shares the independence of Manon Lescaut’s intermezzo. That’s not to say the orchestra is unimportant in Puccini’s music: far from it, with the orchestra most commonly holding the meat of the melodic content beneath the singers’ simpler lines, and his genius for orchestration crucial in the specific scene-setting for which he is so celebrated. But when he decides to write an extended instrumental passage without any singing at all, he’s taking an unusual step.
One simple reason for taking that step is those gaps in Manon’s story. At the end of Act II, Manon and her lover Des Grieux have been discovered by Geronte, the elderly man who keeps Manon in the lap of luxury. Des Grieux begs Manon to flee with him, but she dithers about which jewels she should bring with her. Geronte returns with the police and Manon is arrested. Act III opens in Le Havre, from where Manon will be deported to America. The intervening intermezzo represents Manon’s sentencing and her transportation to Le Havre, and Des Grieux’s desperate efforts to free her and then, finally, to follow her wherever she goes. Rather than show us all this, Puccini efficiently provides a five-minute instrumental interlude as a stand-in.
But – of course – Puccini is interested in much more than efficiency. Earlier gaps in the story are passed over without comment, most notably Manon and Des Grieux’s idyll before she leaves him for Geronte (which should come between Acts I and II). The lovers’ contentment does not interest Puccini, who is fired more by tracking the progress of a doomed love. At this central point in the opera he makes sophisticated use of musical material from across the opera to show us how far the lovers have come, and to foretell the terrible end that awaits them.
The intermezzo begins with a contorted passage for solo string ensemble, the instruments passing between themselves a chromatic, yearning melodic fragment that recalls Manon’s first words to Des Grieux: ‘Manon Lescaut mi chiamo’ (my name is Manon Lescaut). The context is very different from that innocent chance encounter, but the echo is unmistakable. Twelve bars later Puccini rewards us with a luscious melody (itself made of smaller blocks spun together into a beautiful long line), shared, for now, in hushed unison between the flutes and violas. This is drawn, as so much of the intermezzo’s following melodic material, from Manon and Des Grieux’s extended duet of recrimination and forgiveness from Act II – this part in particular from Manon’s whispered request ‘Un’altra volta ancora, deh, mi perdona!’ (Forgive me one more time!). One can imagine Des Grieux alone, reliving this moment in his mind.
Puccini gradually builds up the sound, adding more instruments to the unison line and dramatic interjections from the accompanying sections, in what gradually reveals itself to be a fantasia on the Act II duet. Underneath the long lines the interior parts always bubble away, propelling the music forwards at an urgent pace. As the music builds the melody becomes frantic, and a tempestuous transition section seems to hurtle us towards disaster. At the last moment, the expected tumultuous climax is averted, and the intermezzo closes with a lulling descending motif that shines with hope – a pre-echo from the end of Act III, when Des Grieux has secured himself passage on Manon’s ship and a new life in America beckons. But the intermezzo already predicts the failure of that life, and the doom-laden opening of Act IV is unescapable.
Motifs, especially when used in tragedy, have the power to make events seem inevitable. Everything that happens is the natural progression of what has gone before – which here was that first moment Des Grieux and Manon set eyes on each other. The idea has particular dramatic potency in this intermezzo: we can imagine the lovers apart, each dwelling on what has happened, and what the future might hold. The lyric beauty of the intermezzo and its close musical relationship to the rest of the opera – and the fact that it takes place with the curtain down and without a note being sung – suggest what it is that makes Manon Lescaut so compelling. Rather than get caught up in details of the plot, Puccini obsesses us with these two people, and the love that destroys them.
Manon Lescaut runs 22 November–12 December 2016. Tickets are still available.
The production is a co-production with Shanghai Grand Theatre and is staged with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE and the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation Cover Awards.