Portraits of Manon

Classic Arts Features   Portraits of Manon
Steven Blier examines how changing styles have transformed Massenet's Manon, which opens this month at Houston Grand Opera.

The year is 1973. I am at the very beginning of my career as an accompanist, and Sheri Greenawald has asked me to come and play her voice lesson with the distinguished teacher Hans Heinz. We're working on the gavotte from Manon, which Sheri wants to imbue with passion, angst, desire, and neurotic turmoil.

Heinz watches Sheri's sincere, tortured fervor for a while before bursting out, "No, no, no, no, Liebchen! This is not Manon! She is all flightiness, charm, and superficiality, with her beautiful dress and her parasol and her walking stick!" Abruptly, he jumps up and illustrates for us, cutting the rug in a bewitchingly mincing two-step as he flirts with an imaginary men's chorus.

Heinz's performance of Manon seemed bizarre to us‹and not only because it was totally out of character for him to sashay around his studio. It was the product of a generation gap, which in this case spanned not one but two generations. To him, Manon was an incorrigible charmer; to us, she was a deeply neurotic young woman in need of therapy. We probably didn't realize it at the time, but the difference between Heinz's view of Manon and ours marked a very significant breaking point in opera performing style and philosophy. And it was no accident that this particular opera was the lightning rod for the controversy. Ever since its premiere, Manon has been used to reflect the changes of fashion and behavior in the world, both inside and outside the opera house.

Admittedly, some of the Manon confusion originates with Massenet himself. After he finished the work, in 1883, he began the search for a soprano to sing it. Eventually he chose Marie Heilbronn. Sixteen years earlier, she had made her debut in Massenet's first stage work, La Grand' Tante, at age 16. But in her mid-20s she retired from singing for a number of years to pursue another kind of career. She became the mistress of a series of increasingly aristocratic men and, like Manon, resolved to move up the social ladder. She finally snagged a baron. Wealthily wedded, she returned to the stage. She was 33 when she sang the premiere of Manon. Although Heilbronn may not have been in the first bloom of her youth, she had an implicit understanding of Manon's character. When Massenet played the score for her, she wept as he finished. The moment she heard Manon's dying exclamation, "Et c'est là l'histoire de Manon Lescaut," she cried out with emotion, "But this is my story!" No doubt her charisma and her notoriety joined with Massenet's musical skills to make his new opera an instant hit with the public.

Like Manon's, Heilbronn's life ended early. She died just two years after the opera's premiere, and the management retired it from the repertoire for a little while. When it returned, Massenet tinkered with the score, adding the famous gavotte for another favored soprano. Soon after that, he replaced it with a fancy virtuoso showpiece for yet another star.

In the late 1880s, Massenet's life took a dramatic turn when he met a young soprano from California named Sibyl Sanderson, who was in Paris to study singing. She had a brilliant voice, whitish in color, with a remarkable upper extension all the way up to G above high C. Massenet became her mentor and grew so infatuated that he created Thaïs and Esclarmonde around her voice‹and her physical charms. One famous night, her gown somehow became unfastened at the end of Act One of Thaïs. She stood naked to the waist before the scandalized (and ecstatic) French public. Her success was assured.

Sanderson became Massenet's Manon of choice, and he rewrote sections of the role for her, adding a slew of optional high notes and cadenzas throughout the score. He also put a reprise of the St. Sulpice love theme into the final duet, to bring back the opera's best tune. The role, originally conceived for the gifts of a veteran soprano, was now festooned with flights of coloratura, exposed high notes, and a showy double aria at the apex of the evening. The arias still sat comfortably in the middle voice, but now there were also opportunities for florid display and climactic endings on high C and above. Having taken the trouble to engrave his score before the 1884 opening to avoid changes by the director of the Opéra, Massenet had to publish a new edition.

Sanderson was the first Manon of the Metropolitan Opera, in 1895. Anticipation ran high for the American debut of the 33-year-old diva. In the smaller theaters of Europe, she had been a sensation in the part. But her voice was simply too feathery for a theater the size of the Met. The lightly orchestrated arias went well enough, the high notes had their accustomed effect, but the orchestra swamped her in the St. Sulpice scene and the death scene, where her middle voice didn't have the weight to compete with the outpouring of tenor Jean de Reszke. Crestfallen, she went back to Paris after three performances. Her European career took a nosedive soon afterward, and she too died an early death.

It's not easy being Manon. Some major sections of the opera need a warm, authoritative middle voice to carry their emotional message; an equal portion of the role calls for a light, girlish sound and some control in the high extension of the soprano voice. Massenet has left the singer options from both the original score and the Sanderson rewrites.

We'll never know what Heilbronn or Sanderson sounded like. Their careers came just a few years too early for the recording horn. But it's easy to hear how their successors sang the role 80 years ago in Paris. There are no fewer than three French recordings from the 78-rpm era reissued on CD. The stars, Emma Luart, Germaine Féraldy, and Fanny Heldy, all put their singular stamp on the title role. But to a modern ear their vocal and interpretive similarities will be more obvious than will their differences. For one thing, their voice type‹a bright, operetta-style lyric-coloratura‹isn't heard anymore, at least not among today's big stars and certainly not among those playing Manon. The subsequent trend has been to cast the role with more and more dramatic voices, and that reflects some interesting changes in the opera world as styles homogenized and opera houses grew larger.

But there is a more intriguing reason that this particular opera is played and sung differently than it was in earlier decades. As the women's liberation movement and the sexual revolution have changed Western society, they have naturally affected our perspective on the classical canon‹particularly a work such as Manon, which centers around the rise and fall of an ambitious, sensual, manipulative, free-spirited woman.

As women in great numbers stepped into the workplace during World War II, the flighty Manon vanished. Larger voices took over the role, bringing a newly forceful interpretation to the opera. Passion replaced the delicate wheedling of an earlier generation. Judging from recordings and photographs, these new Manons echoed the film archetypes of their times: Licia Albanese's fervor packs the heat of an operatic Olivia de Havilland, while Eleanor Steber's extroverted good-time girl seems infused with the spirit of Betty Hutton. The libretto may say she's 16, but she's no teenager in these performers' hands.

The famous Manon of the 1950s was Victoria de los Angeles, who sang the role both at the Met and in a classic recording under the baton of Pierre Monteux. Her singing is elegant and nuanced, the sound full and rich‹and the effect is surprisingly maternal. She's a perfect Manon for the Eisenhower era: alluring, stylish, assured, gently commanding, unthreatening. If she's unstable emotionally, she hides it, '50s style, under the most elegant veneer.

In New York in the 1960s, the great Manon success was not at the Met but at New York City Opera with Beverly Sills. It was the great Sills moment, when her technique and her self-confidence were in prime shape. She was able to take Manon through a larger emotional trajectory than previous productions had allowed. Sills was believable as both a farm girl and a call girl, and at that point she could still tap into surprisingly expressive depths as an actor.

Her performance was the first to reflect the growing strength and autonomy of modern women. Whereas Anna Moffo, at the Met a few years earlier, presented Manon as a man's plaything, Sills's Manon was a free spirit, pursuing the good life with enthusiasm and earthiness. In place of the brittle girls or the suffering film-noir victims of the past, we now saw a creature of incandescent narcissism. Sills's dazzling coloratura and her ease in the very highest register of her voice allowed her to linger over the showy moments of the roles as no one had before. Her string of trills and the pianissimo high D at the end of "Je marche sur tous les chemins" conquered not just the men's chorus onstage but the entire audience. Where others had desperately lunged at the climaxes, Sills effortlessly lounged. Another sign of the times: Sills's Manon liked sex. In the bedroom scene of Act II, Moffo and Nicolai Gedda had sung their letter duet draped over a chair. At City Opera, Sills and Michele Molese finally were placed where the characters ought to be‹in bed. Perhaps Sills was too big and self-assured to be called a "flower child" Manon. But she did embody another motto of the time: Do your own thing. Her Manon reveled in the pleasure principle.

It was during those years that Hans Heinz and Sheri Greenawald found themselves at odds over Manon's identity. He tried to revive the traditional Manon‹to mold Sheri into the character described in James Harding's study of Massenet operas: "tender, superficial, and quite brainless." But as women attained new strength and stature, they didn't want to play the romantic heroines in the old way, nor were they encouraged to by the new guard of directors. Frank Corsaro's popular acting classes in New York always included a "hostility exercise" to liberate the anger lurking within the performers. Gilda was now a victim not of the Duke but of her own raging hormones. Mimí was an angry girl. Lucia was a vengeful murderer, Carmen a suicidal nymphomaniac.

As the century waned, it was easier than ever for women to juggle the pleasures of a rich sugar daddy and a gym-toned boyfriend at the same time. But now an ambitious woman could also rise to the top of the heap on Wall Street, in law firms, medical offices, boardrooms, even Congress.

This new climate was again reflected in the way performers sang and acted Manon. Gone was the flighty charmer, the indecisive masochist, the weak-willed object. We now started to see her as a destructive and self-destructive force, a Gallic Lulu motivated by primal desires for sexual and material possession. This was closer to Sheri Greenawald's idea of Manon, and New Yorkers got a chance to see such a concept in action when Catherine Malfitano took over the role from Sills at City Opera in the mid-1970s. Her character was more driven, more manipulative, hungrier‹a trend that intensified when Malfitano took her portrayal to the Met in the current Ponnelle production.

At the fin de siècle, Manon got yet another makeover, this time from Renée Fleming, whom I have frequently accompanied in recital. Her musical portrayal is an elegant fusion of the best of her predecessors: the rich warmth of de los Angeles, the coloratura facility of Sills, the languid loveliness of Moffo. To this heady mixture, she adds her own kind of bluesy phrasing. Her technical control and her round, seductive timbre make for a remarkable vocal traversal of the role. She seems more self-contained than earlier sopranos in the part. When I first saw it, I remember thinking, "It's like Moffo's Manon after she went and got an MBA." Fleming's coolness and her brilliant stylistic synthesis make her a perfect Manon for the Information Age.

Given that Manon has proved such a chameleon, could anyone ever capture her essence for all times? I think one artist did: Patricia Brooks. She made few recordings and no video; Brooks was Sills's alternate at City Opera. But in her best roles, she was a singing actor of such charm that one could never forget her. Manon was perhaps her greatest part. Her singing suggested the historic French sopranos without their limitations, her physical grace revealed her training as a dancer; she inhabited this complicated role with utter naturalness. Willful, neurotic, sexy, fresh, captivating, complex, Brooks sliced through all the contradictions of the part to reveal its truth. Multiple sclerosis ended her career‹and her life‹all too soon. But at her memorial service, they played an aria from Manon, and we heard the voice of eternal youth, in all its appeal, confusion, and poignancy.

Steven Blier, a pianist and voice coach, is on the faculty of The Juilliard School. He is co-artistic director of the New York Festival of Song. An earlier version of this article appeared in the March 2001 edition of Opera News.

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