Echoes of Tristan – Thoughts on Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”

Fifty years ago, when I saw my first Puccini opera, his “Turandot” was only 30 years old   (To put this in  the perspective of time, consider the age of three operas that did not exist in 1956. Adams’ “Nixon in China” has been around for 19 years, Britten’s “Death in Venice” for 33 and Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” turns 50 in about  a month.)

At that time (1956) “La Boheme” was  just 50 years old, and only “Manon Lescaut”, of his operas still in the repertory, was older than 50 years. 77Now we haved lived through the centennials of “Boheme”, “Tosca” and “Butterfly”, and the centennial for “Girl of the Golden West” will be on us at decade’s end. “Manon Lescaut” turns 115 in a few weeks. Enough time has elapsed to begin to get a clearer picture of the Puccini legacy and  how the oldest of his popular operas fits into the body of works we call the “standard repertoire”.

I have been fortunate in a six week period to see three operas that I believe it instructive to consider together – Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, Massenet’s “Manon” and Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”, each in world class productions. The connection is obvious between the two operas that are each  based on the story of the Chevalier des Grieux published in 1737  as an appendage  to a sprawling serialized work by the Abbe Prevost.  The “Tristan” association is more subtle.

Both Massenet and Puccini were pegged by their contemporaries as being under the spell of Wagner. Both used Wagner’s technique of recurring musical phrases associated with particular characters or ideas (leitmotivs). There are substantial differences in how strictly the Wagnerian  leitmotiv idea was  employed by each composer.   Puccini’s leitmotivs,  as a general rule, unlike  Massenet’s, appear in one form and then  become  transformed by the orchestra as they reappear throughout the opera.   I suspect “Manon Lescaut” would have received an “A” in leitmotiv design from Wagner, and Massenet no better than a “C+”.

On the dramatic construction of each opera, it is a different story. When one looks at the Massenet work, it is clear that the composer and his librettists not only succeeded in developing a dramatically effective work, but set out to do so from the beginning.

There are six scenes – boy and girl meet and become sexually attracted to each other, boy and girl are in an apartment but girl is tired of being poor, girl has prospered as a rich man’s plaything but is getting bored, boy is about to become a priest but girl reappears and he succumbs to her entreaties to leave the priesthood for her, boy and girl live the high life but girl is denounced by the rich man and is arrested, imprisoned girl dies in boy’s arms just before she is to be shipped to Colonies.

There is no doubt that Massenet has extracted from the source material (adapted from another medium as Hollywood would say) a cogent, interesting and theatrically logical story that has proven to be an enduring opera.

Were one to study Prevost’s early 18th century work to better understand the source material of the operas  (an assignment that even the most curious of us might let others do for us), one would observe that Massenet’s librettists considerably shortened Manon’s life (and her time with Des Grieux) by having her die “on the road to Havre” rather than  experience banishment  on a prison ship to New Orleans (with Des Grieux bribing his way into the ship’s crew).

In fact, Prevost  details the couples’ subsequent adventures  in New Orleans, where a person with power in that woman-starved French colony  plots to  have Manon as his own wife, leading to events that results in both lovers being banished to the desert.

Puccini, much to his publisher’s discomfort and annoyance, announced his interest in  creating an opera out of  the Prevost work, even though Massenet had already  produced a mega-hit on the subject a few years earlier. (There are only eight years between “Manon” and “Manon Lescaut”.)

Although some authors have appeared to buy into Puccini’s facile explanation that he wished to have a passionate Italian version of the story rather than a powdered, minuet-dominated story, that does not make much sense to me. First of all, as I mentioned in my review of the Los Angeles Opera “Manon”, the Massenet opera is quite markedly passionate,  and, with a giant Ponchielli-like final ensemble to the Hotel de Transylvanie scene, itself not always that far from the Italian style.

Massenet is not Rameau or Lully, nor even Boieldieu or Auber.   Nor does Puccini eschew powder and minuets. Witness “Manon Lescaut’s” Act II which can match the Massenet version powder for powder and minuet for minuet.

On the contrary, I believe that the  passion that most interested Puccini was not Italian, but Wagnerian, and specifically, his wish to try his hand at reproducing  the  recondite harmonies (in his own style, of course)  of the final act of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”.

He, Mascagni, Giordano and others were considered the young Italian composers, ready to bring Wagnerian ideas to the Italian opera house.   And “Tristan” had premiered less than 25 years prior to Puccini’s adoption of the idea of writing an opera on the same subject as had Massenet. (There are only 27 years between the premieres of “Tristan” and “Manon Lescaut”.)

[Below: Act IV of Manon Lescaut. Chevalier des Grieux (Mischa Didyk) with the dying Manon (Karita Mattila), in a Louisiana desert; edited image of a Terrence McCarthy photograph from a 2006 San Francisco Opera performance, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

What has led me to believe this? Consider the relationship between the source material and each opera’s ending. Clearly, both the Massenet (including his team of  librettists) and Puccini (who, although he had five librettists at various times, never conceded the storyboard to anyone else) agreed that the inclusion of  the des Grieux and Manon adventures  in New Orleans was unnecessary to the operatic plot.

Once you have decided to eliminate the New Orleans business, the Massenet decision to have Manon die in des Grieux’ arms on the road to Havre makes dramatic sense.   But Puccini’s death scene occurs in the Louisiana “desert” after the banishment from New Orleans. Could there possibly be a reason for this? (The answer, below, is “yes”, but let’s continue this line of argument.)

At first, Puccini appeared to consider an alternative to  Massenet’s sequence of scenes as follows: (1) the meeting at the coach stop, same as Massenet, (2) the lovers together (probably at an earlier stage of their relationship than in Massenet’s second scene), (3) events in Manon’s Boudoir in Geronte’s house leading to her arrest (kind of a mixture of the Cours le Reine scene and Hotel de Transylvanie scenes in Massenet), and (4) death on the Louisiana plain. Such a plan would have worked fine, perhaps with the kind of love music we would come across later in the first acts of “La Boheme” and “Butterfly”.

[Below: Manon Lescaut (Karita Mattila), in chains in the Parade of Prostitutes, is consoled by the Chevalier des Grieux (Mischa Didyk); edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

But, then Puccini came up with the idea of the parade of prostitutes being deported to Louisiana, and,  despite publisher and librettist protests, it replaced the would-have-been second act love scene. But that left two Puccini Acts (half the opera) that covered the events of Massenet’s sixth of six scenes – the attempt to rescue Manon at Le Havre, followed by her death in des Grieux’ arms.

A century and an eighth has elapsed since  “Manon Lescaut’s”  premiere and the opera’s partisans have often defended  it on its extraordinary abundance of melody and inventive situations like the parade of prostititues, despite, in the view of these partisans, having a somewhat botched plot.  It is merely an early work, they argue, before he mastered his style, with enough going for it to mount it every few years.

But perhaps there is more to it than that. Consider the operatic scene at the time that Puccini was trying to develop what would be his “breakthrough” hit. Italy’s reigning composer, Verdi, who was decidedly not a disciple of Wagner, was composing  his final work “Falstaff” at the same time as Puccini was working on “Manon Lescaut”.

The  fame of being  Italy’s leading contemporary operatic composer would inevitably transfer from Verdi to another composer. There  were several talented candidates for the title, one of whom – his friend and former classmate, Mascagni – had just achieved worldwide success with “Cavalleria Rusticana”.

I believe,  that instead of “Manon Lescaut” being a botched work, it is a deliberate exposition of Puccini’s genius – the work he wished us to have.   (He made a few minor alterations to the opera before his death, so we know, that, unlike his “Turandot”, we have his final intentions on the opera.) For “Manon Lescaut” Puccini deliberately developed for us a sampler of his styles and musical ideas,  incorporating his work up until then,  mixing it in with  his original ideas for the fusion of Wagnerian and Italian verismo styles.

Thus, the Louisiana scene has a vital purpose, without which Puccini would have lost interest in the “Manon Lescaut” project. The Louisiana desert  meant to Puccini what the setting of Tristan’s death in Breton Kareol  meant to Wagner – an extended opportunity for a title character in the last hours of life to express heartfelt feelings about love and death, utilizing a harmonic structure that transcends those of their contemporaries.

Listen to the chromatic melodic phrases from both Manon and des Grieux  sharing their last moments together on the Louisiana plain.   This is Puccini’s amalgamation of Wagner’s new musical directions from  a quarter century earlier  with the new sonorities being introduced into Italian verismo opera.

If, indeed, as I suspect, Puccini was searching for a dramatic vehicle for such a merger of artistic styles, finding a suitable subject for this purpose – never easy for this very picky composer – was most difficult. (How many stories lend themselves to the development of  a whole act devoted to  one person dying?)

Once Puccini had found a subject he could use to advance his purpose, and thought through its musical construction, then, I believe, there was little anyone could do to dissuade him from this project. He was enamoured of Wagnerian theory and music and wished to try his hand at creating an original form ultimately based upon it.   In fact, I  find echoes of “Tristan’s” Act III throughout “Manon Lescaut”.

Listen to the latter’s Act I  music accompanying the arrival of the coach from Arras that echoes the fanfare announcing the arrival of Isolde’s ship; or a short Wagner-like  group of notes  heard when the Innkeeper is working out the plans for Geronte’s dinner with Manon. Listen to the Act II reconciliation between Des Grieux and Manon in Geronte’s apartment’s that I find impossible to have conceived had the composer not had knowledge of the music of Tristan’s and Isolde’s liebesnacht.

Once the plans for Act IV on the Louisiana Plain were set, and the Act III “Parade of Prostitutes” were conceptualized, the rest of the opera fell into place.   The first act was the one that introduced each of the four main characters in the opera and provided us for the context (and some hit music) for the love affair. The beautiful baroque-style music of the Second Act was one of the opportunities that Puccini used to introduce some of his best  music from his student compositions  or early career projects into his most ambitious opera project yet.

[Below: Manon Lescaut (Patricia Racette) is feeling abandoned in a Louisiana wilderness; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

Manon Lescaut

Between “Manon” and “Manon Lescaut”, we have a pretty good distillation of those plot lines in Prevost’s work that would be of interest to later times (Massenet’s and Puccini’s and ours). Both works deserve to hold the stage.  But “Manon” is unlikely to be  dislodged by any other Massenet compostion as  his most successful work – in fact, the most successful French opera to premiere after Bizet’s “Carmen”.

I believe  it enhances our appreciation of  “Manon Lescaut” to understand its debt to “Tristan”. Puccini’s successful demonstration of the fusion of Wagnerian and verismo styles led directly to the incomparable  masterpieces that succeeded it, assuring  that Puccini would become  and remain the most popular and enduring operatic composer of the 20th century – the heir of both Wagner and Verdi.