Major Operas | Manon by Jules Massenet | Turn of the Century

Manon and Werther have become Massenet’s most frequently performed operas, but several others are gaining ground, among them Hérodiade, Thaïs, Sapho, Cendrillon, Grisélidis, Chérubin and Don Quichotte, all recently revived. Both Manon and Werther – and the other operas as well – are about relationships.

The tale of Manon explores a theme that fascinated Massenet: the conflict between religion and passion. The opera culminates in a scene in the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. Both Manon, at the beginning of the opera, and Des Grieux, who fell in love with her and provided her with an escape route from the convent, at times turn to the church. But physical love, it seems, is more powerful than the love of God. It is in the church that the lovers reunite. A gambling episode makes the opera, resulting in terrible consequences for Manon, the female victim whom opera lovers in the late nineteenth century seemed to adore. Lumps in the throat are legion as we see her preparing for deportation to the colonies, musically heightened by the device of recalling earlier times. Massenet intensifies the moment by having Manon lose her singing voice: she speaks the words above highly emotional music from the orchestra.

Composed: 1882–83; rev. 1884
Premiered: 1884, Paris
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille after Abbé Prévost’s novel

Act I

Guillot, an elderly roué, and Brétigny, a tax collector, are entertaining three actresses at an inn in Amiens. Lescaut meets his cousin Manon, so dizzy with excitement after her coach journey that she almost forgets she is on her way to a convent. Guillot propositions her but she laughs at him. He tries again, telling her that his carriage is waiting. Lescaut reminds her of their family honour. She sees the elegantly dressed actresses and reflects on how marvellous endless pleasure would be. The Chevalier Des Grieux sees Manon and is immediately smitten. She explains that she is being sent to the convent because she is considered too fond of pleasure. He declares he would do anything to stop her. Seeing Guillot’s carriage, she suggests running off to Paris together. Lescaut returns with Guillot to find they have gone.

Act II

In their Paris apartment, Manon reads aloud the letter Des Grieux has written asking his father’s permission to marry. He is curious about some flowers that she claims were thrown through the window. The maid announces Lescaut and, she whispers, the tax collector who loves her. Lescaut angrily demands to know if Des Grieux plans to marry Manon and is shown the letter. Brétigny warns Manon of a plan to abduct Des Grieux on his father’s orders. It would be to her advantage to say nothing. Left alone, Manon hesitates. She still loves Des Grieux but yearns for luxuries. She bids farewell to their humble surroundings. He describes his dream of their future rural life together. There is a knock, which she begs him not to answer. He...

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