This month, I will post links to two performances of operas that consider the same subject material, coming at it from two different musical traditions.

Life Meets Fiction?

L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut is a short novel by Father Antoine François Prévost (in French, «Abbé Prévost»). Published in 1731, it is the seventh and final volume of Mémoires et aventures d'un homme de qualité (Recollections and Adventures of a Man of Quality).

Prévost was educated with the Jesuits, and in 1713 became a novice of the order in Paris, pursuing his studies at the same time. At the end of 1716 he left the Jesuits to join the army, but soon tired of military life, and returned to Paris in 1719, later travelling in the Netherlands before re-joining the army, this time with a commission.

Some biographers have assumed that he suffered some of the misfortunes assigned to his hero Des Grieux. Whatever the truth, he joined the learned community of the Benedictines of St Maur, after the unlucky termination of a love affair. He took his vows in 1721 after a year's novitiate, and in 1726 took priestly orders.

Prévost did not remain in Religious life for long, travelling to England around 1728, and travelled from there around Europe and romancing several ladies along the way… It is during these travels that he penned the above Mémoires, including the History of Manon and Des Grieux. The book was eagerly read, chiefly in pirated copies, being forbidden in France (in a subsequent 1753 edition, Prévost toned down some scandalous details and injected more moralizing disclaimers).

In the autumn of 1734 Prévost was reconciled with the Benedictines, and, returning to France, was received in the Benedictine monastery of La Croix-Saint-Leufroy to pass through a new, though brief, novitiate. In 1735 he was dispensed from residence in a monastery by becoming aumônier to the Prince de Conti, and in 1754 obtained the priory of St Georges de Gesnes. He continued to produce novels and translations from the English, and, with the exception of a brief exile (1741-1742) spent in Brussels and Frankfurt, he resided for the most part at Chantilly until his sudden death in 1763.

Set in France and Louisiana in the early 18th century, the History of Manon and Des Grieux follows the hero, the Chevalier des Grieux, and his lover, Manon Lescaut. Des Grieux comes from noble and landed family, but forfeits his hereditary wealth and incurs the disappointment of his father by running away with Manon. In Paris, the young lovers enjoy a blissful cohabitation, while Des Grieux struggles to satisfy Manon's taste for luxury. He scrounges together money by borrowing from his unwaveringly loyal friend Tiberge and from cheating gamblers. On several occasions, Des Grieux's wealth evaporates (by theft, in a house fire, etc.), prompting Manon to leave him for a richer man because she cannot stand the thought of living in penury.

The two lovers finally settle down in New Orleans, where the virtual absence of class differences allows them to live in idyllic peace for a while. But when Des Grieux reveals their unmarried state to the Governor and asks to be wed with Manon, the Governor's nephew sets his sights on winning Manon's hand. In despair, Des Grieux challenges the Governor's nephew to a duel and knocks him unconscious. Thinking he had killed the man and fearing retribution, the couple flee New Orleans and venture into the wilderness of Louisiana, hoping to reach a neighboring English settlement. Manon dies of exposure and exhaustion the following morning, and Des Grieux returns to France to become a cleric after burying his beloved.

Manon in opera

There are three operas – two in French and one in Italian – that render Prévost’s story on the lyric stage: Auber (1856), Puccini (1893, topic for a later post) and the more played version by Massenet (1884).

Manon is Massenet's most popular and enduring opera and, from its première onward, has maintained an important place in the repertore. It is the quintessential example of the charm and vitality of the music and culture of the Parisian Belle Époque - a period characterized by optimism, peace at home and in Europe, new technology and scientific discoveries. The peace and prosperity in Paris allowed the arts to flourish, and many masterpieces of literature, music, theatre, and visual art gained recognition.

The book penned by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille take significant liberties with the original Prévost text, omitting several parts and characters and are content to the principal plot line of the youthful love between Manon and Des Grieux, Manon’s aspirations for a life of luxury leading her to find a rich (but older) lover and finally the lovers reuniting, but not without causing scandal and – ultimately - Manon’s inevitable deportation for being a woman of ill-fame.
There are several sub-plots involving Manon’s cousin Lescaut, Des Grieux and his Father (reminiscent of the younger and older Germont dynamic in Traviata), and the story never leaves European soil, as Manon dies in De Grieux’s arms near Le Havre.

The Performance

The performance I chose is a near-vintage performance if the 1954 “revival” of Manon at the Met, Here are some words from a review by Ronald Eyer in the December 15, 1954 issue of Musical America:

"Manon" is all style. Without style it becomes mawkish, trivial and a weak thing upon the stage. The presence at the helm of probably the greatest living French conductor, Pierre Monteux, was assurance enough that that indispensable ingredient would be sought and found. One has not frequently heard such elegance in phrasing, such subtlety of nuance, both on the stage and in the orchestra, nor such sophistication in dramatic exposition in the Parisian manner as Mr. Monteux insisted upon in this performance. In his hands, the work attained the Gallic hauteur that it must have to escape its banal and melodramatic propensities.

But Mr. Monteux had powerful allies among his non-French confreres. First was Victoria De los Angeles, one of the great sopranos of our day, in the name part. To portray a fickle, glamor-dazzled girl at the operatically impossible age of sixteen is no small assignment, but Miss De los Angeles invested the role with that alternation between childish naiveté and calculating worldliness that makes the thing believable, the while she sang with infinite purity and fastidious vocal technique such choice morsels as the famous third-act Gavotte and the "Adieu" to the little table.
She was seconded by Cesare Valletti, one of the most polished vocalists in the company, in the role of Des Grieux. Mr. Valletti, handsome and debonair as befits the chevalier, was as aristocratic vocally throughout the evening as he was visually and won himself high acclaim for his "Le Rêve de Manon" one of the familiar highlights of the score.

Our performance today streams on line from the Music Library of MQCD-Musique-Classique, and features a vintage MET broadcast from December 18, 1954.

Jules MASSENET (1842 - 1912)
Manon (1884)
Opéra comique in five acts
French libretto by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille, based on the 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost
Victoria de Los Angeles (Manon),
Cesare Valetti (Des Grieux),
Fernando Corena (Lescaut),
Jerome Hines (Comte Des Grieux),
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Pierre Monteux, conducting
(Live broadcast from December 18, 1954. The stream includes spoken introductions by MET radio host Margaret Juntwait)

Synopsis -
Libretto -
Perfromance URL -