On January 18, 1907, Giacomo Puccini, by then an international celebrity, made a delayed entrance into the theater on Broadway and 39th Street. The high seas that held up the liner on which he had sailed were to blame for his late appearance. The Metropolitan premiere of his Manon Lescaut was already well underway. Spotted by the audience at the first act intermission, he was saluted with a fanfare and then an ovation insistent to the point that he was obliged to leave his box so that the show could go on. Puccini’s stock in New York had risen rapidly in the wake of the 1900–01 Met premieres of La Bohème and Tosca. Scarcely a month after the first night of Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly premiered as well, prepared under the composer’s stern eye. While Puccini was pleased with the Met’s Manon Lescaut and with the performance of the star, Lina Cavalieri, he was decidedly unhappy with its Madama Butterfly and with Geraldine Farrar’s Cio-Cio-San. Farrar would nevertheless go on to be the most frequent and beloved Butterfly in the company’s history.
Three years later, in 1910, on its first tour abroad, the Met brought to Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet its very best, including Manon Lescaut, with Enrico Caruso as Des Grieux. In deference to Jules Massenet and to his French Manon, composed in 1884, nine years before the Italian Manon Lescaut, and based on the same text, Abbé Prevost’s 1731 novel, the opera had never before been heard In France. (We recount in its detail the nationalistic uproar aroused by the Met’s foray into Paris in our book, Grand Opera: The Story of the Met.)
On March 5, 2016, the Met’s new production of Manon Lescaut, the sixth in the company’s history, will be simulcast “Live in HD” on screens across the globe. We were in the house for the second performance, on February 15. Like many in the audience, we were disappointed that the scheduled tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, had had to cancel due to illness. He was replaced by Roberto Alagna who had only a couple of weeks to prepare for his role debut in this particularly challenging part. As disappointing as Kaufmann’s absence were the sets by Rob Howell and the direction of Sir Richard Eyre. The decision to move the action from 18th century Amiens, then Paris, then Le Havre, and finally to Louisiana, as the text makes explicit, to mid-20th-century France under the German Occupation, ostensibly for the benefit of a 21st-century audience, turns out to have been misguided at best. Without attention to narrative coherence, the updating of costumes and props (here in any case strangely cartoonish) is not convincing justification for the transposition of time and environment. But we leave a more exacting appreciation of the many missteps of the production to those of our readers who have yet to witness this most recent of Peter Gelb’s imports, this time from Baden Baden.
For a sense of what New Yorkers missed, here is Kaufmann, not on the Met stage, but recently at London’s Covent Garden in Des Grieux’s opening aria, “Donna non vidi mai (Never have I seen a woman),” Puccini’s passionate expression of young love at first sight.
Des Grieux, falling instantly in love, persuades Manon to run off with him at the end of Act I. But by the beginning of Act II, the flighty, mercenary Manon, who has taken up with a rich sugar-daddy, expresses regret for having left her penniless, handsome young chevalier. She contrasts the cold luxury provided by Geronte, her protector, with the humble warmth of the love nest she shared briefly with Des Grieux. Here Eileen Farrell sings “In quelle trine morbide (In these soft laces).” Dramatic soprano Farrell, who never sang the role of Manon, tapers her enormous voice to express, with utter simplicity, the young woman’s regret.
The highlight of Act II is Manon and Des Grieux’s passionate love duet of reconciliation. In spring 1956 Licia Albanese and Jussi Björling sang two incandescent performances of Manon Lescaut at the Met under the inspired direction of Dimitri Mitropoulos. The excitement they generated is preserved in a commercial recording made at the same time.
In the opera’s final act, Manon, dying of thirst and exhaustion, sings the despairing “Sola, perduta, abbandonata (Alone, lost, abandoned).” In summer 1970, we were present in Verona’s vast arena where Magda Olivero so thrilled the audience that, at the opera’s end, the public rushed onto the stage to surround the legendary diva. She had sung the aria lying head-down on a steeply raked incline!