Revisiting an Old Story, in Puccini's "Manon Lescaut"

woo-1632-manon-lescaut-storyIt's not unusual for a single story to inspire operas by more than one composer. Yet it is extraordinary for one story to inspire two distinctly different operas that are both wildly popular -- and that's exactly what happened when Giacomo Puccini and Jules Massenet both wrote dramas about a willful young woman named Manon.

Actually, it was a fellow named Antoine-Francois Prevost d'Exile -- more commonly known as the Abbé Prévost -- who got it all started. In the 1700s he wrote a sensational, multi-volume series of novels. The last of them was Manon Lescaut -- the story of a willful young woman torn between true love and a life of luxury, and seemingly determined to have both. The book did so well that Massenet, Puccini and a third composer, Daniel Auber, all set its story to music in the 19th century.

Auber's version appeared first, in 1856, and has all but disappeared. Massenet and Puccini came up with their Manon operas in 1884 and 1893, respectively. They were both smash hits pretty much right from the start, and have stayed in the repertory ever since.

Puccini, explaining why he took on the story in the face of Massenet's earlier success, came up with one of his most famous quotes, saying, "Massenet feels the subject as a Frenchman. I shall feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion." To write the libretto, the composer relied on a team including journalist and playwright Luigi Illica. The result was Puccini's first big hit, and the two followed it up with three more successful collaborations:  La Boheme, Tosca and Madame Butterfuly.

In Puccini's Manon Lescaut, as in many of his operas, the female lead comes to a bad end.  Back in the Abbé Prévost's day, and in Puccini's, as well, people might well have figured that Manon got exactly what she deserved.  After all, she does take up with two very different guys, taking just what she wants from each of them, while refusing to "commit" to either one; they both want exclusive relationships, and she tells them to forget it.  In the opera -- and the novel -- society punishes Manon for her brazen behavior. She's arrested for theft and prostitution, imprisoned and then exiled.

Today's audiences may not be quite so quick to dismiss Manon as a woman of loose morals. In fact, she might well be seen as a forward-thinking, iron-willed heroine -- a woman who straightforwardly sets about getting what she wants, regardless of what others expect from her.  So, who was Manon? Feminist, or Floozy? We'll reserve judgment -- and urge you to check out the opera and decide for yourself.   

On this week's edition of World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Puccini's Manon Lescaut from the Vienna State Opera, in a production featuring one of opera's true superstars, soprano Anna Netrebko, in the title role.