Earlier this month, we started a look at two settings – portraits – of the 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by l’Abbé Prévost. Our first look was the very popular Manon by Jules Massenet.

(As I write these words, the site where I pointed to a performance of Manon and where I often refer readers for music streams, MQCD-Musique-Classique, has been undergoing maintenance and an update. I hope it will come back on line soon…)

Today’s portrait is also a fairly staged opera, though it comes from an unexpected source: Italy’s Giacomo Puccini, who pens his Manon Lescaut almost 10 years after the very popular setting by Massenet.

As I stated in my last OTF post, there are a number of settings of Prévost’s novel, and in a phenomenon that seems to have taken over film, “remakes” (or in this case, retellings) of similar topics isn't unusual in itself. But I think we may ask “why?” IS it merely to retell the story in Italian? Is it because this kind of plot line is just too good to pass up? Puccini’s answer is a little bit of column “A, and a little bit of column “B”:

Manon is a heroine I believe in and therefore she cannot fail to win the hearts of the public. Why shouldn’t there be two operas about Manon? A woman like Manon can have more than one lover. [...] "Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion.
The first performance of Manon Lescaut took place in the Teatro Regio in Turin on 1 February 1893; it was Puccini's third opera and his first great success. The libretto, based on Prévost's novel, is quite effective despite the participation of five hands in it, though not all in collaboration: Leoncavallo (who fashioned the first version), Marco Praga, Domenico Oliva, Luigi Illica, and Giuseppe Giacosa.

If we compare the two settings (Massenet’s and Puccini’s), the essence of the main plot line is intact: The nobleman Des Grieux espies the beautiful Manon Lescaut, accompanied by her brother and the treasurer-general, Geronte di Ravoir, who fancies himself her suitor. Des Grieux is captivated by her and learns from her she plans to join the convent. He convinces her to run off with him.

Manon’s expensive tastes lead her into the arms of Geronte. Some time later, at Geronte's Paris residence, Manon confides in her brother that she is bored with Geronte and wishes to have Des Grieux back. Lescaut fetches the latter, and when Des Grieux and Manon attempt to run off, Geronte has her arrested as a thief and woman of loose morals. Authorities plan to deport her to Louisiana.

Where the two operas mainly differ is in the ensuing action: Massenet’s Manon dies in the hands of her lover at the Havre in Paris, whereas Puccini has Des Grieux board the ship bound for Louisiana. Later in America, Des Grieux flees with her after a duel with the nephew of the colony's governor. On the run with Des Grieux, Manon becomes seriously ill and bids him a sad and dramatic farewell. He falls unconscious over her body.

THE PERFORMANCE

The performance I chose is the 1954 RCA Victor recording featuring Licia Albanese as Manon, Jussi Bjorling as Des Grieux and Robert Merrill as Lescaut, Jonel Perlea conducs the Rome Opera orchestra and chorus.
According to Robert Levine for ClassicsToday on 2005:

This "classic" 1954 recording is indeed that: I'd be hard pressed to think of a better performance of this opera, either live or on discs. Soprano and tenor completely inhabit their roles, and when you get right down to it, that's what the success of this opera leans on.
I'm pretty certain that Albanese never sounded as young as Manon is supposed to in Act 1 [but] her flawless diction, complete understanding of the Puccini idiom, refusal to cutesy-up or harden at any point, and her utter honesty brings the character entirely to life. She sounds impetuous in the first act, troubled and then swept away in the second, and downhearted, beaten, and pitiful in the third and fourth. She sounds more frail in her last-act aria than any soprano I can recall [it’s] a stunning performance.

And what a Des Grieux Bjoerling is! Ardent, ringing, specific, tender, and dangerously in love, all with that beautiful, inimitable tone. Merrill sounds luxurious as Lescaut, happy, dumb, and believable, and Calabrese's Geronte is one tough cookie. Jonel Perlea gets at the nervous center of the second-act duet and captures the dreaminess elsewhere.
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Manon Lescaut (1893), opera in four acts
Italian libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa (with contributions by Ruggero Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Domenico Oliva and Luigi Illica), based on the 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by l’Abbé Prévost.

PRINCIPAL CAST
Licia Albanese (Manon Lescaut)
Jussi Björling (Des Grieux)
Robert Merrill (Lescaut)
Franco Calabrese (Geronte)

Rome Opera House Orchestra and Chorus
Jonel Perlea, conducting
Venue: Rome Opera House, Rome, Italy July 1954

Synopsis @ http://opera.stanford.edu/Puccini/Ma.../synopsis.html
Libretto @ http://www.librettidopera.it/zpdf/manonles.pdf
Performance (Internet Archive) - https://archive.org/details/ml-04

(This performance is taken from Sean Bianco's Friday Night at the Opera podcast of August 19, 2011. His introductions are part of the above link.)