About this work

The libretto for this work, by playwright Henri Meilhac (1831-1897) and journalist Philippe Gille, is based on the novel, L'histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, by Abbé Prévost (1697-1763), published in 1731. Earlier musical interpretations of the novel include a ballet by Halévy of 1830, an opera by Michael Balfe of 1836, and Auber's opera of 1856. Puccini's Manon Lescaut appeared in 1908. Meilhac and Gille's libretto conforms to the original more than does Auber's, and most of their changes are made with the drama in mind. For instance, they reduce the number of times Manon leaves des Grieux from three to one; Lescaut is changed from Manon's brother to her cousin; and Manon's death takes place on the way to Le Havre, not in Louisiana.

In 1882, Massenet and his collaborators finalized the form of the libretto, which the composer then set in piano/vocal format. Orchestration was completed in the summer of 1883. Manon was first performed on January 19, 1884, at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Although the opera received a mixed reception by critics, the public loved it, and it remained in the repertory of the Opéra-Comique until 1959, with over 2,000 performances. By late 1885, Manon was playing in New York.

Massenet was aware of Opéra-Comique director Léon Carvalho's tendency to alter the works premiering at his establishment. To combat this, Massenet had the score of Manon printed before rehearsals began. Nevertheless, the composer himself later made some changes, adding Manon's Gavotte in 1884 and changing the same number to the "Fabliau" 10 years later.

Manon is less impressive as a whole than as a succession of striking numbers. Retaining the novel's eighteenth century setting, the opera offers noisy crowd scenes, passionate duets, and tense melodramas that certainly pleased Opéra-Comique patrons. Fortunately, the traditions of French Opéra-Comique formed a good fit with Prévost's eighteenth century novel.

Variety is at the heart of Manon. Spoken dialogue, such as Guillot's "Hôtelier de malheur," from the first act, alternates with several different types of melodrama. Some of the melodrama sections employ the traditional spoken dialogue set against a simple, sustained orchestral backdrop, such as the Count's "Bravo, mon cher, succès complet!" in the St. Sulpice scenes in the third act. Other melodrama passages blatantly make use of important motives from the opera, such as Brétigny's "Jamais plus doux regard n'illumina plus gracieux visage" in the first act, which incorporates Manon's theme. Recitatives vary from those that conform to the prosody of the text to others that are more song-like, such as Lescaut's "Mademoiselle est ma cousine," from Act Two.

Massenet adroitly conveys the essence of the drama through music. For example, Manon's first aria, "Je suis encore tout étourdie," perfectly characterizes the young Manon in its hesitancy. "N'est-ce plus ma main," which closes the third act, boasts a scintillating, erotically charged violin gesture at the moment the lovers touch. Perhaps most impressive are the Cours-la-Reine scenes, which are connected in rondo fashion, supporting the shifting of focus from one character to another and then back.