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Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > Manon - Massenet

An Opera by Jules Massenet

Opera in five acts by Massenet; words by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille, after the story by Abbé Prévost. Produced Opéra Comique, Paris, January 19, 1884; Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels, March 15 1884. In English, by the Carl Rosa Company, Livepool, January 17, 1885; and at Drury Lane, London, May 7, 1885, with Marie Roze, Barton McGuckin, and Ludwig. In French, Covent Garden, May 14, 1894. Carcano Theatre, Milan, October 19, 1893. Academy of Music, New York, December 23, 1885, with Minnie Hauck (Manon), Giannini (Des Grieux), and Del Puente (Lescaut); Metropolitan Opera House, January 16, 1895, with Sibyl Sanderson and Jean de Reszke.


CHEVALIER DES GRIEUX…………………………..…….. Tenor
COUNT DES GRIEUX, his father…………………….…….. Bass
LESCAUT, of the Royal Guard, cousin to Manon…..…….. Baritone
GUILLOT DE MORFONTANTE, Minister of Finance, an old beau……Bass
DE BRETIGNY, a nobleman…………………………..…….. Baritone
MANON…….. ……………………………………………….. Soprano
POUSETTE, JAVOTTE, ROSETTE, actresses……………….. Sopranos
Students, innkeeper, a sergeant, a soldier, gamblers, merchants and their wives, croupiers, sharpers, guards, travellers, ladies, gentlemen, porters, postilions, an attendant at the Monastery of St. Sulpice, the people.

Time: 1821.
Place: Amiens, Paris, Le Havre.

Act 1. Courtyard of the inn at Amiens. Guillot and De Brétigny, who have just arrived with the actresses Pousette, Javotte, and Rosette, are shouting for the innkeeper. Townspeople crowd about the entrance to the inn. They descry a coach approaching. Lescaut, who has alighted from it, enters followed by two guardsmen. Other travellers appear amid much commotion, amusement, and shouting on the part of the townspeople. He is awaiting his cousin Manon, whom he is to conduct to a convent school, and who presently appears and gives a sample of her character, which is a mixture of demureness and vivacity, of serious affection and meretricious preferment, in her opening song, "Je suis encore étourdie" (A simple maiden fresh from home), in which she tells how, having left home for the first time to travel to Amiens, she sometimes wept and sometimes laughed. It is a chic little song.

Lescaut goes out to find her luggage. From the balcony of the inn the old roué Guillot sees her. She is not shocked, but laughs at his hints that he is rich and can give her whatever she wants. De Brétigny, who, accompanied by the actress, comes out on the balcony in search of Guillot, also is much struck with her beauty. Guillot, before with drawing with the others from the balcony, softly calls down to her that his carriage is at her disposal, if she will but enter it and await him. Lescaut returns but at the same time his two guardsmen come after him. They want him to join with them in gambling and drinking. He pretends to Manon that he is obliged to go to his armoury for a short time. Before leaving her, however, he warns her to be careful of her actions. "Regardez-moi bien dans les yeux" (Now give good heed to what I say).

Left alone, Manon expresses admiration for the jewels and finery worn by the actresses. She wishes such gems and dresses might belong to her. The Chevalier des Grieux, young, handsome, ardent, comes upon the scene. He loves Manon at first sight. Nor does she long remain unimpressed by the wooing of the Chevalier. Beginning with his words, "If I knew but your name," and her reply, "I am called Manon," the music soon becomes an impassioned love-duet. To him she is an "enchantress." As for her -- "A vous ma vie et mon âme" (To you my life and my soul).

Manon sees Guillot’s postilion, who has been told by his master to take his orders form Manon. She communicates to Des Grieux that they will run away to Paris in Guillot’s conveyance. "Nous vivrons à Paris" (‘Tis to Paris we go), they shout in glad triumph, and are off. There is much confusion when the escape is discovered. Ridicule is heaped upon Guillot. For is it not in his carriage, in which the old roué hoped to find Manon awaiting him, that she has driver off with her young lover!

Act II
. The apartment of Des Grieux and Manon, Rue Vivienne, Paris. Des Grieux is writing at his desk. Discovering Manon looking over his shoulder, he reads her what he has written -- a letter to his father extolling her charms and asking permission to marry her.

The scene is interrupted by knocking and voices without. The maid servant announces that two guardsmen demand admission. She whispers to Manon, "One of them loves you -- the nobleman, who lives near here." The pair are Lescaut and De Brétigny, the latter masquerading as a soldier in Lescaut’s regiment. Lescaut scents more profit for himself and for his cousin Manon in a liaison between her and the wealthy nobleman than in her relations with Des Grieux. Purposely he is gruff and demands "yes" or "no" to his question as to whether or not Des Grieux intends to marry the girl. Des Grieux shows the letter he is about to dispatch to his father. Apparently everything is satisfactory. But De Brétigny manages to convey to Manon the information that the Chevalier’s father is incensed at his son’s mode of life, and has arranged to have him carried off that night. If she will keep quiet about it, he (De Brétigny) will provide for her handsomely and surround her with the wealth and luxury she craves. She protests that she loves Des Grieux -- but is careful not to warn him of the impending abduction.

Lescaut and the nobleman depart, after Lescaut, sly fellow, has blessed his "children," as he calls Manon and Des Grieux. Shortly afterwards the latter goes out to dispatch the letter to his father. Manon, approaching the table, which is laid for supper, sings the charming air, "Adieu, notre petite table" (Farewell, dear little table). This is followed by the exquisite air with harp accompaniment, "Le Rêve de Manon" (A vision of Manon), which is sung by Des Grieux, who has re-entered and describes her as he saw her in a dream.

There is a disturbance outside. Manon knows that the men who will bear away her lover have arrived. She loves Des Grieux, but luxury means more to her than love. An effort is made by her to dissuade the Chevalier from going outside to see who is there -- but it is a half-hearted attempt. He goes. The noise of a struggle is heard. Manon, "overcome with grief," exclaims, "He has gone."

Act III. Scene I. The Cours de la Reine, Paris, on the day of a popular fete. Stalls of traders are among the trees. There is a pavilion for dancing. After some lively preliminary episodes between the three actresses and Guillot, De Brétigny enters with Manon. She sings a clever "Gavotte." It begins, "Obeissons, quand leux voix appelle" (List to the voice of Youth when it calleth).

The Count des Grieux, father of the Chevalier, comes upon the scene. From a conversation between him and De Brétigny, which Manon overhears, she learns that the Chevalier is about to enter the seminary of St. Sulpice and intends to take holy orders. After a duet between Manon and the Count, who retires, the girl enters her chair, and bids the wondering Lescaut to have her conveyed to the seminary.

Scene II. Parlour in the Seminary of St. Sulpice. Nuns and visitors, who have just attended religious service, are praising the sermon delivered by Des Grieux, who enters a little later attired in the garb of an abbé. The ladies withdraw, leaving Des Grieux with his father, who has come in unobserved, and now vainly endeavours to dissuade his son from taking holy orders. Left alone, Des Grieux cannot banish Manon from his thoughts. "Ah! fuyez douce image" (Ah! depart, image fair), he sings, then slowly goes out.

Almost as if in answer to his soliloquy, the woman whose image he cannot put away enters the parlour. From the chapel chanting is heard. Summoned by the porter of the seminary, Des Grieux comes back. He protests to Manon that she has been faithless and that he shall not turn from the peace of mind he has sought in religious retreat.

Gradually, however, he yields to the pleading of the woman he loves. "Ne’est-ce plus ma main que cette main presse?... Ah! regarde moi! N’est-ce plus Manon?" (Is it no longer my hand, your own now presses?... Ah! look upon me! Am I no longer Manon?") The religious chanting continues, but now only as a background to an impassioned love duet -- "Ah! Viens, Manon, je t’aime!" (Ah, Manon, Manon! I love thee.)

Act IV. A fashionable gambling house in Paris. Play is going on. Guillot, Lescaut, Poussette, Javotte, and Rosette are of the company. Later Manon and Des Grieux come in. Manon, who has run through her lover’s money, counsels the Chevalier to stake what he has left on the game. Des grieux plays in amazing luck against Guillot and gathers in winning after winning. "Faites vos jeux, Messieurs," cry the croupiers, while Manon joyously sings, "Ce bruit de l’or, ce rire, et ces éclats joyeux" (Music of gold, of laughter, and clash of joyous sounds). The upshot of it all, however, is that Guillot accuses the Chevalier of cheating, and after an angry scene goes out. Very soon afterwards, the police, whom Guillot has summoned, break in. Upon Guillot’s accusation they arrest Manon and the Chevalier. "O douleur, l’avenir nous separe" (Oh despair! Our lives are divided for ever), sings Manon, her accents of grief being echoed by those of her lover.

Act V, originally given as a second scene to the fourth act. A lonely spot on the road to le Havre. Des Grieux has been freed through the intercession of his father. Manon, however, with other women of her class, has been condemned to deportation to the French colony of Louisiana. Des Grieux and Lescaut are waiting for the prisoners to pass under an escort of soldiers. Des Grieux hopes to release Manon by attacking the convoy, but Lescaut restrains him. The guardsman finds little difficulty in bribing the sergeant to permit Manon, who already is nearly dead from exhaustion, to remain behind with Des Grieux, between whom the rest of the opera is a dolorous duet, ending in Manon’s death. Even while dying her dual nature asserts itself. Feebly opening her eyes, almost at the last, she imagines she sees jewels and exclaims, "Oh what lovely gems!" She turns to Des Grieux: "I love thee! Take thou this kiss. ‘Tis my farewell for ever." It is, of course, this dual nature which makes the character drawn by Abbé Prevost so interesting.

"Manon" by Massenet is one of the popular operas in the modern repertoire. Its music has charm, and the leading character, in which Miss Farrar appears with such distinction, is both a good singing and a good acting role, a valuable asset to a prima donna. I have an autograph letter of Massenet’s written, presumably to Sibyl Sanderson, half an hour before the curtain rose on the premiere of "Manon," January 19, 1884. In it he writes that within that brief space of time they will know whether their hopes are to be confirmed, or their illusions dissipated. In New York, eleven years later, Miss Sanderson failed to make any impression in the role.

The beauty of Massenet’s score is responsible for the fact that audiences are not troubled over the legal absurdity in the sentence of deportation pronounced upon Manon for being a courtesan and a gamber’s accomplice. In the story she also is a thief.

The last act is original with the librettists. In the story the final scene is laid in Louisiana (see Puccini’s Manon Lescaut). The effective scene in the convent of St. Sulpice was overlooked by Puccini, as it also was by Scribe, who wrote the libretto for Auber’s "Manon." This latter work survives in the laughing song, "L’Eclat de Rire," which Patti introduced in the lesson scene in "Il Barbiere di Seviglia," and which Galli-Curci has revived for the same purpose.

"Le Cid"; opera in four acts and ten scenes; the poem by MM. D’Ennery, Louis Gallet, and Edouard Blau; music by Massenet; produced at the Opera on November 30, 1885. The authors of the libretto of "Le Cid" declared at the start of it that they had been inspired by Guillen de Castro and by Corneille. The sole masterpiece of Corneille which is built about a sort of psychological analysis of the character of Chimène and of the continual conflict of the two feelings which divide her heart, in fact would not have given them sufficient action; on the other hand they would not have been able to find in it the pretext for adornments, for sumptuousness, for the rich stage setting which the French opera house has been accustomed for two centuries to offer to its public.

This is the way the opera is arranged: First act, first scene: at the house of the Comte de Gormas; scene between Chimène and the Infanta. Second scene: entering the cathedral of Burgos. Rodrigo is armed as a knight by the King. The King tells Don Diego that he names him governor of the Infant. Quarrel of Don Diego and Don Gormas. Scene of Don Diego and Don Rodrigo: "Rodrigue, as-tu du coeur?" Second act, third scene: A street in Burgos at night. Stanzas by Rodrigo: "Percé jusques au fond du coeur." Rodrigo knocks at the door of Don Gormas: "A moi, comte, deux mots!" Provocation; duel; death of Don Gormas. Chimène discovers that Rodrigo is the slayer of her father. Fourth scene: The public square in Burgos. A popular festival. Ballet. Chimène arrives to ask the King for justice. Don Diego defends his son. A Moorish courier arrives to declare war on the King on the part of his master. The King orders Rodrigo to go and fight the infidels. Third act, fifth scene: The chamber of Chimene: "Pleurez, pleurez, mes yeux, et fondez-vous en eau." Scene of Chimène and Rodrigo. Sixth scene: the camp of Rodrigo. Seventh scene: Rodrigo’s tent. The vision. St. James appears to him. Eight scene: the camp. The battle. Defeat of the Moors. Fourth act, ninth scene: The palace of the Kings at Granada. Rodrigo is believed to be dead. Chimène mourns for him: "Eclate mon amour, tu n’as plus rien a craindre." Tenth scene: A courtyard in the palace. Rodrigo comes back as a conqueror. Chimène forgives him. The end.

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