In Puccini’s version of the Abbé Prévost’s novel, which will open the 2019 Opera Holland Park season in a production directed by Karolina Sofulak and designed by George Leigh, joint first prize winners of the tenth Opera Europa prize, Manon’s faults are picked over for all to see. Love mostly takes a back seat.
As the Italian composer and his librettists see the story, we linger more over Manon’s failings than her passion for the devoted Chevalier des Grieux. The teenage Manon arrives in Paris, in theory intended for the convent, but her slippery cad of a brother Lescaut plans to sell her to the highest bidder. Life with the ardent yet penniless Des Grieux is a more attractive escape plan, but in Manon Lescaut we never see the lovers happily together. By Act II of Puccini’s opera she is already the mistress of Geronte – and it is she who ruins Des Grieux’s next escape plan when she delays their flight to pick up all her jewels.
Des Grieux, whose only crime is to have been unable to keep Manon supplied with the level of luxury she craves, ends up joining his lover in exile in America. Their final chapter is total ruination on the road from New Orleans – death for her, total despair for him. In Massenet’s French adaptation, the last word also goes to Manon, but it is more ambiguous when she contemplates her epitaph: “C’est là l’histoire… de Manon Lescaut!” – “And that is the story of Manon Lescaut.” Make of me what you will, she implies.
The story of Manon Lescaut scandalised France but like every good scandal it went viral and sparked a trend. Not one for investigations into trafficked convent girls, but for stories of the so-called femmes fatales. Manon may be seen as a victim – that is certainly the theme of contemporary productions of the two major operas based on her story – but that is not how the character would have been originally regarded. Her desires are capricious, her innocence (what happened to that aspiring nun?) all too corruptible, her failings considered specific to women (narcissism, flightiness, too keen an interest in jewellery). Tangle with this femme fatale and you will suffer for it. Best to enjoy her only at the opera, where she’s not real.
Of course, the dangerous but alluring operatic heroine didn’t begin with Manon. The Baroque composers relished confronting their morally upright heroes – dull sticks in many cases – with malevolent villainesses, whose extreme emotions intersect with their supernatural powers. French composers were particularly drawn to Medea, whose wrath is terrible when the hero Jason transfers his affections from her to a rival princess. Medea murders their children and kills her husband’s new squeeze. There is no comeuppance for her: in Charpentier’s version of the Greek myth she makes her getaway in a flying chariot pulled by dragons. Imagine what Holland Park’s peacocks would make of it.
Handel was one of several composers to be drawn to Armida, the enchantress who preys on noble crusading knights (see Rinaldo) and also has a chariot for weekends; but his most compelling creation of this sort is Alcina, who is a fascinating combination of frailty and ferocity. Still, she is officially evil and is not allowed to be rescued or mourned: at the end of the opera that bears her name she crumbles to the ground and is forgotten in the general rejoicing.
These women, however, are archetypes. Femmes fatales emerge out of a different climate. They move in the real, not the mythical world. Manon may be the first of these women to revel in the pleasure-loving salons of Paris, but she is far from the last: they are drawn to the grands boulevards like baroque sorceresses are drawn to flying chariots.
And the relationship between the heroine and the city is as intense and as problematic as her romantic liaisons. Manon, Violetta (La traviata) and Magda (La rondine) – the last two seen recently on the Holland Park stage – are welcomed into Paris as new playthings to be admired, but they will be swapped for fresh meat when the going gets rough. Violetta says she is “abandoned in this crowded desert known as Paris”; in La rondine, it is the inexperienced Ruggero who is so dazzled by the city that he sings an aria about it, but ultimately it is he who wishes that Magda would break free from the capital of sin, and it is she who knows that the Rondine, the swallow, must return to her gilded birdcage.
Even Puccini’s little Mimi, the seamstress tucked away in her garrett in La Boheme, is part of this story of Paris and its femmes fatales. “They call me Mimi,” she tells Rodolfo – a throwaway line perhaps but one that suggests a role that she has been playing, perhaps in more fortunate times, as a good time girl with a cute alter ego. Paris has filled her lungs with disease but it has also filled her spirit with a flirtatiousness that the self-righteous Rodolfo detests and which contributes to the final tragedy.
The operatic femme fatale would grow bolder about asserting her right to desire whoever or whatever she wants. “If I love you – watch out,” asserts Bizet’s Carmen, whose murder at the hands of Don José is a tragedy for them both, but she retains her independence to the end, even if it does cost her life. Salome, in Richard Strauss’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s decadent drama, sheds her clothes not to titillate, but in order to reach an ecstatic but horrific moment of self-knowledge with the severed head of John the Baptist. The insight gained by Alban Berg’s doomed seductress, Lulu, who moves on from lover to lover, leaving death in her wake, is greater yet. ‘’I have never pretended to be anything but what men see in me,’’ she says. Yet still the men come to be destroyed.
Different as the two women and their respective milieus are, it is surely Lulu who inspires Mark-Anthony Turnage’s outrageous yet strangely empathetic Anna Nicole Smith in his 2011 opera, Anna Nicole. And, just as Manon once set out to conquer Paris and heap up its jewels, so glamour model Anna Nicole tells us, the appalled yet beguiled audience, that she will “rape that goddamn American dream”. By the close of her tragedy, her faults are certainly not forgotten – yet we have learnt to love this modern-day Manon Lescaut.
Manon Lescaut will be performed at the Investec Opera Holland Park 2019 Season on 4, 7, 11, 13, 15, 18, 20, 22 June
Article by Neil Fisher, first appeared in Chorus magazine, Autumn 2018