It is risky business to challenge an established opera with a rival version that may or may not become a masterpiece. Notable examples include successive versions of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend by Jacopo Peri, Monteverdi, and Gluck; the Paisiello and Rossini versions of The Barber of Seville; and Ruggiero Leoncavallo's engrossing but unsuccessful effort to compete with Giacomo Puccini's La bohème.
In 1890 a young Puccini took up the challenge as well when he proposed to set the sensationalistic early 18th-century novel by Abbé Prévost, The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut, which had already been acclaimed in Jules Massenet's brilliant stage version six years earlier.
Puccini was 31 at the time and struggling to make his mark after the uncertain reception of his first two operatic ventures. He was wary of using the same episodes in the story line that Massenet had extracted from Prévost's novel, so he reduced the number of scenes and cast members and changed names, relationships, and locales. But the essence of the plot remained: Manon, a beautiful convent-bound young girl, embarks upon a passionate affair with the penniless young Chevalier des Grieux, then vacillates between their ardent, poverty-ridden romance and her boring existence as the luxuriously kept mistress of the wealthy Parisian, Geronte de Revoir. Caught fleeing with jewels Geronte has provided her, she is imprisoned, then deported with a group of prostitutes to colonial New Orleans, where she dies in Des Grieux's arms on a lonely deserted road.
Puccini intended to write the libretto himself, but his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, intervened, telling him he needed the help of a professional dramatist. In the end, six successive librettists labored for three years over the task before the finicky composer was satisfied. None of them is credited in the score, although the last pair, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, soon became the librettists for Puccini's three greatest hits: La bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly.
Seeking to elevate Puccini as heir to the operatic position held by the revered, elderly Giuseppe Verdi, Ricordi cleverly controlled circumstances surrounding the premiere on February 1, 1893. As recounted by author William Weaver, Ricordi chose the Teatro Regio in Turin as the site for Manon Lescaut's unveiling, in an effort to avoid the same harsh press reception that had dampened the premiere of Puccini's previous opera, Edgar, at Milan's La Scala Opera. To concentrate attention on Puccini's new opera, he suppressed the premiere of Catalani's La Wally the same season, and when the Turin theater management complained, he threatened to raise rental fees on Ricordi-owned scores for other operas on their season's repertoire.
Notwithstanding the existence of Massenet's competing version and the fact that so many librettists had had a hand in fleshing out the scenario to Puccini's Manon Lescaut, the new piece succeeded with the public and the press, and the opera has held its place in the repertoire for more than a century. It has established itself as the first expression of Puccini's mature creative style, and the freshness, confidence, and passion of its music have sustained the work against allegations of a flawed plot structure. In the light of many commentaries about the work, it is interesting to examine Puccini's goal and compare it with his achievement in the opera.
In his study of the work, operatic scholar Conrad Osborne cites significant quotes about Puccini's intention from Marco Praga, the second librettist involved in Manon Lescaut, and Giuseppe Adami, an early Puccini biographer. Praga recalled the composer telling him he intended to compose "an opéra comique in the classical sense of the term," adopting a designation given to Massenet's 1884 setting of Manon and to an earlier version of Prévost's Manon Lescaut, set by Daniel-François Auber in 1856. In the earliest, strictest definition of that term, that would imply a light, satirical comedy in which arias are interspersed with spoken dialogue instead of sung recitative, as is the case in portions of Massenet's opera. Later 19th-century definitions classified opéra comique as a sentimental musical drama, not rising to the tragic-heroic dimensions of French grand opera.
In his study of Puccini's heroines, William Weaver adds the insight that Manon and also Mimí in La bohème are not highly moral tragic heroines, faced with life-or-death decisions. They are weak-willed victims of circumstances, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Manon is indeed an amoral, sentimental person, unable to choose between love and luxury.
Adami's quotation from a letter Puccini wrote is particularly perceptive: "Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with the powder and minuets," he wrote. "I shall feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion."
In making that remark, Puccini was not entirely fair to Massenet, who could evoke plenty of passion in certain scenes of his opera‹notably the end of the third-act Church Scene where Manon successfully tempts Des Grieux to abandon his priestly vocation. But passion is the prime ingredient in Puccini's Manon Lescaut, and it is expressed in such heated lyricism that the opera is indelibly marked as a work of his maturity as a composer.
While the result was hardly a typical French opéra comique, the "powder and minuets" are not totally ignored in Puccini's scenario. In trying to avoid copying Massenet's story line, he skipped from the initial scene in Prévost's novel and the first act in both operas to an elegant scene of Manon as Geronte's kept woman, partly comparable to the 12th scene in Prévost's novel and the gambling scene in the middle of Act IV in Massenet's opera. To bridge this great leap in the story, Puccini and his librettists have Manon reflect back upon her affair with Des Grieux in a humble Paris apartment (Act II of Massenet), contrasting it to her shallow life amid madrigals and dancing lessons (comparable to Manon's coming-out party in the elaborate, third-act "Cours la Reine" scene of Massenet's opera). Many events in the story are subsumed in the second act of Puccini's opera, including Des Grieux's effort to win back Manon with some reckless gambling.
Where Massenet brought Manon to a pitiless death on the road to her deportation from the port of Le Havre, Puccini followed Prévost's novel, transporting the death scene to a lonely road outside New Orleans. That enabled him to compose the dramatic third-act choral scene of her foiled prison escape and ridicule by the citizens of Le Havre. It is one of many moments that bite deeply in defining the character of Manon, lending that sense of realism which was to become a salient trait in Puccini's mature style.
Carl Cunningham is a Houston-based classical music critic and program annotator.