America Kills True Love: “Met at the Movies” – Manon Lescaut Review.


So as I already posted many times, I have been a great appreciator of Met’s series of opera HD Broadcasts and this past Saturday I was able to catch Puccini’s Manon Lescaut with Karita Mattila and Marcello Giordanni in the main roles of Manon and Chevalier des Grieux (libretto by Ruggero Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Giuseppe Giacosa, Domenico Oliva and Luigi Illica – this is a good story, you should look into it). The opera is based on 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost. The premiere took place in 1893 and, as biographers often point out, although it was Puccini’s third opera, it was his first great success. His next opera, La Boheme (1896), will establish him as a clear successor to the great Verdi, I think.

Manon Lescaut, at least as she is presented in the opera, is not a very complex character. In fact, I think that the opera’s main weakness is precisely this lack of interest in her character that made me less inclined to believe that it is truly tragic that she dies in the desert that is America in the middle of 18th century. Met’s website characterizes her as an “ill-fated heroine who is torn between love and riches” – to that I say a loud “Bullshit!” I mean she is clearly “ill-fated” since she dies from an unknown weakness in some remote place in the cursed America, but whether she is truly torn is not so obvious. Here’s a quick Emelianov-esque run down:

Act I: Manon is escorted by her gambling brother to a convent, she meets two suitors: an old but rich man and a young but poor student – actually, she only meets the student and the old man simply has a plan to abduct her (with her brother’s agreement, it seems) – she goes for a young student who, then and there, declares his love to her.

Act II: Manon is living with the old suitor in Paris, we are made to realize that she gave up the poor student’s love in exchange for some old person loving and lots of jewelry – clearly, she’s not very torn about it as she enjoys the attention and the wealth. Young student shows up to confront her, she still loves him, she tells him – old man catches them in the act, is mad, calls the police – everyone attempts to run away, but Manon has to gather her jewelry first which proves to be rather moronic – police comes in and arrests her.

Act III: Young student tries to arrange for her escape, fails, learns that she is to be shipped to America, pleads with the soldier to let him go as well – is allowed to board the ship, joyful embrace (a possible happy ending?).



Act IV: A poor (but happy?) couple is somewhere in the dreadful America, tired and thirsty – Manon dies from exhaustion – the end.


Image Source: Met’s photo archive.

But the music was great! All the Puccini’s celebrated features were there – great but not vulgar or banal melodies, beautiful developments, orchestral color (attributed to Wagner’s influence in the short interview with James “Jimmy” Levine). I thought that the production was pretty traditional and well-suited for the story. Both Mattila and Giordanni sang beautifully and acting was great, even though they were supposedly portraying very young lovers and Mattila’s playfullness in Act II was difficult to buy.

Again, my greatest complaint with the broadcast was the whole “behind-the-scenes” element: judging by three HD broadcasts so far, intermission “behind-the-scenes” features are aimed at both providing entertainment to the audiences in movie theaters and educating them about the “world of opera production” – it is understandable that Met would be concerned with some sort of a filler, but the “behind-the-scene” footage so far was mostly about the mechanics of the opera production with short bits of interviews with a conductor and main performers. Why such emphasis on the “magic of the opera” unmasking? It’s not as if opera was some sort of a magic trick where the audience would be amazed at its slick production and its effect and would then demand to know how it was done. Everyone knows how opera is staged, whatthat a whole bunch of workers move things around. There is clearly at work a sort of an idea of… perverse egalitarianism! The audience is able to see “behind” the opera production, but not “behind the opera” itself – why not dedicate the intermission time to a feature presentation of an analysis of the opera itself? a short pre-recorded interview with a conductor or a main singer (not a sweaty stuttering singer on the way to the dressing room)? how about some actually thought-provoking features on the history of opera’s performances? anything to educate the public and not simply to attempt to entertain it or to please it by “revealing” to it the “inner workings” of the operatic production? decorations are there to use,

In general, I think the experience was very satisfying since the music is so brilliant and even the lousy libretto and a general lack of interesting characters and plot moves could not spoil the experience of listening to great Puccini.

2 thoughts on “America Kills True Love: “Met at the Movies” – Manon Lescaut Review.

  1. ‘La Boheme’ does more than set Puccini up as successor to the great Verdi. The First Act is such perfection, no matter how popular, with its combination of la volupte and economy that it remains simply startling in a great performance.

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