“Massenet’s Manon: a melancholic femme fatale”

12 June 2012

On the eve of the “Prima delle prime” conference dedicated to Jules Massenet’s Manon, we asked Laura Cosso, guest speaker at tomorrow’s conference, to draw an introductive picture of the opera. Massenet’s Manon is an 1884 adaptation from a novel by French writer abbé Prévost, which in 1893 would have inspired also Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

The lecture, which is titled “Le malìe della femme fatale”, is scheduled for tomorrow, Wednesday June 13, 2012, at 6pm at La Scala’s “Arturo Toscanini” boxes foyer.

How Massenet’s opera relates with Prévost’s novel through Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille’s libretto?

Apart from the sweeping cuts over the original text, which were inevitable through the musical adaption, the first evident feature is the purge of most thorny passages, such as deceits and thefts and the unwilled murder perpetrated by De Grieux. What comes out is a lighter touch which nonetheless does not alter the two side of Manon’s character: her instinct for leasure, her dissoluteness, and her love for the Chevalier. The essential change consists in a turnover bringing Manon to become the real protagonist of the story. Due to this turnover, Massenet’s Manon takes an ambivalence which really makes her the “sphinx étonnant” which De Grieux addresses to. Using this quotation from Alfred de Musset, the whole story of Manon suddenly shifts into a nineteenth-century atmosphere. Manon’s fascination is therefore embodied in her ungraspable character, and in that kaleidoscope of moods wonderfully rendered by Massenet’s fluid and sensuous style.

If we think of Manon as a “femme fatale”, how this role is differently performed first by Massenet in Paris in 1884, and then by Puccini in Turin nine years later?

First I must quote what Puccini once famously said: “(Massenet) feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion”. The second part of this statement is surely true: Puccini’s Manon Lescaut is a story of love and desperation with an incredible emotional poignancy, just as a parable of angst. What does really move Massenet is instead an atmosphere of deep uneaseness. It is a suspension between dreams and disillusionment coming from the overpowering attraction played by Manon. In the end, rather then dying, Massenet’s Manon seems to evaporate. As she dissolves, she moves away from the tragical features of Puccinian heroin. Massenet has shaped a feminine figure which is more misterious and melancholic. Not even death can alter her traits.


Laura Cosso (above) is musicologist and Stage performance professor at the Conservatorio in Milan.

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