Manon Lescaut at the Latvian National Opera

Isn't it quite fantastic, how almost all best-known italian operas are inspired by works of French literature? Even if sometimes the works themselves have fallen into semi-obscurity, this remains a long-lasting testimony to the greatness of France's literary heritage.

Manon Lescaut is one of these works.

This novella by Abbé Prévost about the story of an ill-fated young girl who has been a little too eager in her discovery of the world (to put it this way), has been adapted to the opera stage by three composers. And while Daniel Auber's version is hardly ever performed, most opera lovers are familiar with the 1884 Manon by French composer Jules Massenet, and the 1893 Manon Lescaut by the well-known Italian composer, Giacomo Puccini.

I will admit one thing: a few years ago, I wouldn't even listen to Puccini's version, thinking that Massenet's Manon, in French, was far more authentic. (There was also a time where I looked down on Wagner... When will I ever learn? *sigh*)

And then about a year ago, I listened to the Act II love duet, sung by the wonderful (and oh-so-hunky, I-will-go-straight-for-him*) Jonas Kaufmann and Christine Opolais. Their chemistry was incredible together** and I have to admit, I became kind of obsessed with that duet.

So I bought the 1957 version of Manon Lescaut, conducted by Tullio Serafin, with opera's most legendary couple, Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano.

I listened to it religiously one evening, with a glass of wine and the libretto with the translation to French, and I found myself falling in love with it, and regretting I hadn't listened to it earlier. It was a such a journey, filled with leitmotivs and drama, and I had only felt the same when I discovered Wagner's Ring cycle. In fact, there is enough reason to suspect, from the drama, the passion and the leitmotivs, that Puccini was inspired by Wagner when he composed Manon Lescaut.

I've since followed that ritual that I have after each new opera discovery, and watched different productions of Manon Lescaut, classic and modern, old and new, so I could find what I call The One: a production that is original, a bit daring, and has excellent singers and staging.

And I found it a few weeks ago on The Opera Platform, a site that periodically uploads opera productions that can be viewed for free (I mentioned it last time, in my review of Carmen).

In Puccini's version, Manon, a young girl set to become a nun, meets, falls in love, and runs away with René des Grieux, a student, to Paris, where they live together for a while. Manon then abandons Des Grieux for Geronte, a wealthy, older lover, who spoils her with gold and jewels and treats her like a goddess/trophy girlfriend/glorified sugar baby. Des Grieux, however, comes back to confront her, and Manon, who still have feelings for him, wins him back. They are caught by the Geronte who gets Manon arrested as a woman of loose morals. Des Grieux follows her to the Havre, (in a gorgeous, shiver-inducing intermezzo), where she is to be sent to a French penal colony in Louisiana. After all the other women have gotten onto the ship, it is Manon's turn; Des Grieux begs the ship's captain to allow him to go with her; his request is granted. In Louisiana, Manon and Des Grieux are lost in the arid desert with no food or water. Des Grieux, desperate, tries to fetch help, but it is too late for Manon, who dies of exhaustion.

With the wonderful Asmik Grigorian in the title role, the Latvian National Opera's production of Manon Lescaut is not just musically and aesthetically pleasing, but completely refreshing.

Among the things that I love:

- The mise en abîme with the Manon and Des Grieux, whose story is played by the runaway bride and groom.

- The statues in act II, which replace the young women of "loose morals" who are being deported to America (to be more precise, the penal colony that French Louisiana was in the 18th century).

- The movie screen (and chairs arranged in a cinema-like matter) in the final scene, which takes place in the arid Louisiana desert, and the film with silent actors playing a scene more faithful to the original story while Manon and Des Grieux sing.

- The contrast between black and white. What do you think about the first act, where Manon and DG are in black and the bride and groom are in white, and of the second act where Manon and DG are in white? To me, it looks as if the idea behind this is that the two couples are one (and they both represent a fantasy or a layer of their lives and choices).

- The costumes, the scenery, the symbolic, and the outside the box thinking of this masterpiece.

I hope you will watch this production of Manon Lescaut; I certainly recommend you to, and I know you will love it as much as I did!

Click here to watch the Latvian National Opera's version of Manon Lescaut on The Opera Platform (it is subtitled in English).




* I would also become heterosexual without a second of hesitation for Sean Bean (who played Boromir in Lord of the Rings and Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. I mean, that Yorkshire accent is just... delicious. Meow.)
**Funny anecdote, though, Christine Opolais is married to Andris Nelson, who happens to be conducting the orchestra in that video! I don't know you, but it would be hard for me to watch my spouse kiss one of the hottest men in the world right before my eyes and still be able to lead an orchestra so wonderfully.

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