Opera's Material Girl: Puccini's 'Manon Lescaut'

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Manon LescautWhat do Jules Massenet, Madonna, Giacomo Puccini and Cyndi Lauper all have in common? As it happens, they all came up with music portraying women who know exactly what they want, and who aren't shy about admitting it.

Cyndi Lauper had a hit in 1983 with "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." Madonna expressed a similar sentiment two years later in "Material Girl" -- which includes the unabashed lyric, "'cause the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right."

As for Puccini and Massenet, they both wrote operas about a fictional material girl named Manon Lescaut. She had similar requirements for Mr. Right, and she also had a whole lot of fun -- at least for a while.

Actually, it was a fellow named Antoine-Francois Prevost d'Exile -- more commonly known as the Abbé Prévost -- who got it all started. He was an author, and 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 it 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.

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 did take up with two very different guys, getting just what she wanted from each of them, while refusing to "commit" to either one; they both wanted exclusive relationships, and she told them to forget it. In the opera -- and the novel -- society punishes Manon for her brazen behavior. She's arrested for theft and prostitution, convicted, imprisoned and then exiled.

Today, audiences may not be quite so quick to dismiss Manon as a woman of loose morals. In fact, she could easily be seen as a sort of forward-thinking, iron-willed heroine -- a woman who straightforwardly set about getting what she wanted, using all the resources at her disposal. 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 brings us Puccini's Manon Lescaut from the 2014 season at one of Germany's top opera and concert venues, Festival Hall in Baden-Baden. Eva-Maria Westbroek stars in the title role, with the Berlin Philharnonic in the pit, in a production led by Simon Rattle.

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