Manon — Another Opera with a Tragic Bad Girl

Given my love for La Traviata and all things related to Marie Duplessis, of course I wanted to see Manon at the Met. We made it to the second, of only six performances last Thursday night.

My verdict: C’est Magnifique!

To those of you still baffled by that first sentence and the connection between the two operas, allow me to explain. Verdi’s masterpiece, La Traviata was based on the play, Camille, which was based on the novel, La Dame Aux Camelias. The novel and play were written by Alexandre Dumas fils and were both based on his brief love affair with Mademoiselle Duplessis – an infamous Parisian courtesan who died of tuberculosis at age 23. In both the book and the play (and in most of the film versions), Marguerite Gautier (the heroine) receives a copy of the novel Manon Lescout from her lover. Dumas fils apparently really did give Marie a copy of Abbé Prévost’s novel.

Marie at the Opera

Marie’s life and career somewhat resembled Manon’s – a young girl from the countryside gain wealth and notoriety in Paris through her beauty and charm. Marie, Manon and the fictional versions of Marie all die young. One big difference is that Prévost does not present Manon to us as a plaster saint who is willing to sacrifice everything for love while Verdi and Dumas’ presented a noble heroine who was redeemed by love and selflessness. Manon is a girl who wants both love and money, perhaps money a bit more. In the end, she winds up with neither.

I’ve never read the novel or seen any of the other operatic versions, so there will be no comparisons here. Massenet’s version, with a libretto by Meilhac and Gille, struck us as being both very French and extremely entertaining. We were hooked from the first scene, in which two gentleman and their three not so ladylike lady friends are waiting to be served dinner at an inn. The slow service is treated as a catastrophe. Meantime, the out of town coach arrives with a very young Manon. Although the girl, we are told is not yet fifteen, a rich old geezer (the one from the inn) spots her and immediately makes her an offer. If you think about it too much is seedy to the point of disgusting, but afterwards I felt the whole DSK thing made more sense.

Carmen, another bad-girl who has to die

The music is melodic and sumptuous. The libretto doesn’t take itself too seriously. Like another very famous French opera, Carmen, there’s a fair amount of spoken dialogue and lot of comedy, but in both operas the heroine – like a post-code 1930’s Hollywood bad-girl in a movie – must die for her sins.

One thing that surprised me was how sympathetically Manon – who is after all quite the gold-digger is portrayed. We meet her as very young “high-spirited” girl who makes some bad choices. But I think part of why we sympathize with her was due to Diana Damrau’s fine performance. Not only was her singing perfection, but she conveyed something of Manon’s soul. Damrau may have one of the world’s greatest voices, but there’s nothing of the diva in her.

The story in brief is this: Manon arrives in Armiens, heading for the convent on her family’s orders to save her from her own shallowness and love of adventure. Her cousin, a soldier is supposed to meet her , but he leaves her for a short while to go off gambling. That’s long enough for her to meet the handsome, Chevalier des Grieux, and for the two to fall in love and run away together. When we next see the young lovers, in their little garret, they are planning to wed. Young des Grieux is going to write to his father, but then Manon’s cousin arrives accompanied by de Bretigny the slightly younger of the two rich old swells who’d been waiting for dinner at the inn. De Bretigny warns Manon that des Grieux’s father is going to have him kidnapped, and convinces her not to tell him and instead to run off with him and a life of wealth and pleasure. Next in Act III, we see Manon enjoying her status as de Bretigny’s plaything and the toast of Paris, but when she overhears the Chevalier’s father talking about his son who’s about to take his final vows and become a priest, she has to see him again, and she does. The result is that the two of them run off together again, and squander most of his remaining funds. At her urging he tries to win money back at a casino, but they are both accused of cheating. She goes to jail. His daddy gets him out of it. She’s supposed to be shipped off to Louisiana. (In the novel she is and her boyfriend accompanies her.) In this version, the Chevalier rescues her at the dock, but it’s too late and she dies in his arms.

There were many highlights to Damrau’s performance, but she was probably at her best in the first scene of Act III at the feast day on the promenade of the Cours-la-Reine. She has two arias both extolling her own beauty and power. Again, it takes a certain touch beyond the even the vocal calisthenics to pull these off and still keep our sympathies with Manon.

Somehow I’ve neglected to mention that the Chevalier was sung by the tenor Vittorio Grigolo, and it was match made in opera heaven. The two of them sizzled together on stage. We’d caught Grigolo as Rodolfo last year in La Boheme and were impressed, but Thursday night we were bowled over.

The leads were ably supported by Dwayne Croft, the most employed baritone at the Met, as de Bretigny, Russell Braun as the irresponsible cousin, Lescaut, Christophe Mortagne as the lecherous old goat, and the velvety bass-baritone Nicholas Teste as the Count des Grieux.

Overall this was the type of opera we love – overblown, melodramatic, witty, and melodic. My understanding is that the opera is considered “problematic” though I’m not sure why. Certainly it requires a big production. There’s a large ensemble, and even a ballet in a Act III. Budgets be damned, it was just tons of fun and I feel honored to have been present at this superb production. If you love the opera – you have to go. If you are opera curious, this would be a fine place to start.

As previously mentioned, there are only four more performances including tonight – Tuesday, March 17th, but here’s the good news: There are still seats available for all of them! If you’re on a budget, you might want to check out the scoop on scoring the cheap (but full view) seats.

Below the scene from the Garbo movie version of Camille in which the hero presents Marguerite with a copy of the novel Manon Lescaut. The background music is from La Traviata:

(If you enjoyed this review, nothing says thank you like buying a book I wrote, or even just checking them out.)