“Manon Lescaut” at SF Opera

”Manon Lescaut” at SF Opera

Carol Benet

Abbé Prévost’s “Manon Lescaut” is one of the most famous novels in French literature of the 18th century.  It was written in 1731 but has lived on for almost two centuries where it has had several permutations with at least two operas. The  social themes in it are relevant today.

It is Giocomo Puccini’s opera “Manon” that premiered in 1893 that remained the most beloved manifestation of this famous pre—Romantic novel.  This was Puccini’s first and one of his most popular works.  The current production at the San Francisco Opera is  a revival from 2006-7 and both were directed by Olivier Tambosi.  It is as  spectacular as Puccini’s other works (“Madama Butterfly”, “Tosca”, “La Bohême”)  and is likewise a tear jerker.

Manon is “une fille du peuple”, a commoner , whose brother tries to arrange a good marriage for her so she may elevate herself in society and live in luxury.  This Manon played by Lianna Haroutounian is meant to be 17 when the story begins and is on her way to the convent.  But in Arras, France, she meets the Chevalier des Grieux (Brian Jagde) and immediately they fall in love in a “coup de foudre” (love at first sight).

Puccini’s inspiration was Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” and there is no lack of  music here that expresses rising anticipation and unrestrained passion.  The brother Lescaut (Anthony Clark Evans) and the Geronte de Ravoir (Philip Skinner) accompany her to an inn where they are to stay for the night.  Geronte is not only an aged lecher who can’t wait to bed the beautiful Manon, but he is a farcical character in his pursuit of Manon.  Some of his scenes are the only comedy in the serious opera. There is no fool like an old fool.

The two lovers, Manon and Grieux escape in the coach ordered by Geronte and we don’t see them until the second act after their tryst.  Now Manon is ensconced in the luxurious bedroom that Geronte provides for her where she is surrounded by sumptuous gowns and jewels.  She prefers this setting over the life of poverty in the small cottage that she experienced with the poor Grieux.   Yet now she regrets the separation and remembers their love.   Here amidst the opulence even the thick drapery depresses her as she sings one of the most famous arias in the opera “Here Among These Soft Curtains”.

Singers and dancers perform an amusing faux-Baroque madrigal that  the frivolous Geronte has written.  He has invited other old letches like himself to witness Manon perform an enticing dance for him as a sort of sexual turn-on.

Later when Geronte awaits her outside, Grieux enters the bedroom and they resume their passionate love affair until they are discovered, charged with a crime, sentenced to prison and exiled to the new world.  For the French in the 18th century, their possession New Orleans represented the land of harsh exoticism.  Before their voyage, the prison scene where Manon and the prostitutes are tattooed, put in chains and mishandled is dramatically shocking.

In the last act when the two lovers are alone on an arid wilderness without food or water. Manon expires in Grieux’s arms in a Puccinian ending like his other operas with the death of the heroine.  It is here where the comparisons to today can be made. Manon has always been a victim of the will of the men that surround her. Older lecherous rich men are able to subdue women and use them at their pleasure.  Women’s rights can be prevented or restricted.  This is timeless and so is the injustice of the divide between the lives of the rich and the poor, something that would certainly lead to the French Revolution later in the century.  Today when politicians confront people who are not upset about these injustices and inequalities happening under the current regime with its luxury palaces like the glitzy gaudy Trump towers and Mar-a-Lago and the continual harassment of women, made o.k. by our own leader, they just give a shrug with a “Plus ça change; plus ça reste la même” response.

The singing in this “Manon” is sometimes uneven with a very strong Grieux paired with Haroutourian who only  builds her force towards the end.  An extremely weak voiced Lescaut is paired with the bombastic Geronte. This inbalance in casting is disturbing.

The return of conductor Nicola Luisotti, a Puccini expert, delighted everyone including the fine San Francisco Opera Orchestra.  The male and female choruses were wonderfully prepared by our SF Opera Chorus Director Ian Robertson.  The sets by Frank Phillipp Schlössmann were beautiful and sumptuous when needed.

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“Manon Lescaut” runs at the SF Opera through November 26, 2019.   

About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to ARTSSF.com and ForAllEvents.com.View all posts by Carol Benet →

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