- Opéra-comique in 3 acts
- Composer: D.F.E. Auber
- Libretto: Eugène Scribe, after Abbé Prévost
- First performed: Opéra-Comique, Paris, 23 February 1856, conducted by Théophile Tilmant
|MANON LESCAUT||Coloratura soprano||Marie Cabel|
|DES GRIEUX||Tenor||Henri Puget|
|LE MARQUIS D’HÉRIGNY||Baritone||Jean-Baptiste Faure|
|LESCAUT, Manon’s cousin||Bass||Beckers|
|MARGUERITE, Manon’s friend||Soprano||Léocadie Lemercier|
|GERVAIS, her fiancé||Tenor||Jourdan|
|MME. BANCELIN, cabaret hostess||Mezzo-soprano||Mme Félix|
|M. DUROZEAU, commissaire||Baritone||Lemaire|
|M. RENAUD, Inspector||Baritone||Nathan|
|ZABY, a young slave||Soprano||Mlle Bélia|
|Court nobles, Bourgeois of the Boulevard du Temple, Soldiers, Male and female workers;|
Inhabitants of New Orleans, negroes, colonial soldiers
SETTING: Paris and New Orleans, 18th century
The Abbé Prévost’s flighty, flirtatious heroine has inspired several opera composers; we know her best today from Massenet (1884) and Puccini’s (1893) operas, but Auber beat them to her. His Manon Lescaut skips merrily along with a coquettish smile and a swirl of skirts to the tragic ending in the Louisiana desert.
Manon Lescaut has come to Paris from the countryside, fleeing the convent that her stern uncle wishes her to enter. She loves the Chevalier des Grieux, but is pursued through the first two acts by the Marquis d’Hérigny. At the end of Act I, des Grieux is forced to enlist in the Marquis’s regiment to pay for a banquet; in Act II, he is thrown into prison for leaving camp to see Manon and then sentenced to be shot for striking his corporal. Manon visits the Marquis to obtain a permit, and agrees to live in his townhouse and renounce des Grieux to save his life. Her lover, however, comes to the house, and wounds the Marquis in a swordfight. Manon is arrested and deported to Louisiana, where des Grieux follows her. With the help of some friends, Manon escapes, but dies of exhaustion in the wilderness.
Contemporary critics objected to Scribe’s liberties with Lescaut. “Without the final catastrophe that he was indeed obliged to preserve, only the title would be in common between these three acts and the admirable episode which immortalized the name of Abbé Prévost,” protested P. Scudo[i] (Revue des Deux Mondes).
But Auber’s music was praised; critics were struck by how young the 74-year-old composer seemed, and yet how fresh. “The real Manon would have loved M. Auber’s music,” opined Taxile Delord (Le Charivari); “like her, it is lively, flirtatious, witty, and amusing, showing at times a touch of sensitivity.”[ii] In the opinion of Le Ménestrel’s Julien Lovy[iii], Auber was the finest musical chiseller of the French school. “The sweet songs and harmonic richness he has sown in this score cannot be analysed; it is fresh and graceful, it is youth itself united with what is most charming in art.”
Auber wrote the opera for Marie Cabel (1827–1885), the brilliant young Belgian soprano who created major roles for Meyerbeer (Dinorah in Le pardon de Ploërmel), Halévy (Jaguarita l’indienne), Thomas (Mignon), and Adam (Le bijou perdu, Le muletier de Tolède). The part calls for a coloratura soprano of considerable agility; in the last few decades, Mady Mesplé and Sumi Jo have tackled the part.
The best-known piece is the Bourbonnaise, “C’est l’histoire amoureuse”, better known as Manon’s Laughing Song, from the Act I finale – the last of three pretty coloratura pieces in that act.
The others are her entrée couplets, “Éveillée avant l’aurore”, a perky little soubrette number, and her cavatine “Les dames de Versailles”, a brilliant coloratura piece. In Act II, Manon has a more serious Grand Air, “Plus de rêve qui m’enivre”, in which she contemplates her lot after renouncing des Grieux. The andante is exquisite; the clarinets play a slow phrase expressing her sadness; but, like Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust three years later, Manon is entranced by the jewels she is offered, and swept up in the excitement and glitter of a dance; it ends in a giddy vocalized stretta.
Surprisingly, for those used to Massenet or Puccini, the lead male role is not des Grieux, but Manon’s aristocratic admirer, the Marquis d’Hérigny. Des Grieux has no solo numbers, but takes part in several ensembles: a trio and the finale in Act I; the duet and finale in Act II; and a trio, quartet, and finale in Act III. The Marquis, on the other hand, has three arias – the opening aria, “Et vermeille et fraiche”, in which he describes his meeting with the pretty grisette, and two couplets in Act II: “Manon est frivole et légère”, a bolero, in which he wonders if he is in love with Manon, and “Je veux qu’ici vous soyez reine”, in which he offers her the position of his mistress. All are suave and well written for the voice. He also has a rather good duet with Manon in Act II (“À vous les dons qui savent plaire”) in which he tries to seduce her. We can hear Manon weakening as he offers her clothes and jewels; she eventually yields.
The Act I and II finales are grander and more powerful than one would expect from Auber; the whole opera shows a new seriousness.
Act III takes place in Louisiana three months later, and seems only tangentially related. A chorus of Indians and black slaves (with decidedly unPC lines: “Quand esclave avoir bon maître, Bon maitre il aime à servir”) and a Creole song (“Mam’zell’ Zizi”) provide local colour, so to speak. Still, the minor character Gervais’s aria “Ô bonheur!”, in which he looks forward to his marriage that day, is attractive. The final scene in the desert is surprisingly poignant; it is sombre, moving, written with dramatic instinct and inspiration, much of it arioso, and ends with a religious chorus partway between Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable and Gounod’s Faust.
Massenet’s is clearly the best version of Manon Lescaut, but I prefer Auber’s operettaish take to Puccini’s. It’s lighter and tighter than the great Italian’s patchy, episodic version; if it doesn’t rise to the heights of Act III, it’s never as chichi or as dull.
- Le Charivari, 26 February 1856
- J. Lovy, Le Ménestrel, 2 March 1856
- D.A.D. Saint-Yves, Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, 2 March 1856
- J. d’Ortigue, Journal des débats, 4 March 1856
- B. Jouvin, Figaro, 6 March 1856
- P. Scudo, Revue des Deux Mondes, 1856
- Robert Ignatius Letellier, Daniel-François-Esprit Auber: The Man and His Music, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010
[i] P. Scudo, Revue des Deux Mondes : « Sans la catastrophe finale qu’il a bien été obligé de conserver, il n’y aurait que le titre de commun entre ces trois actes et l’admirable épisode qui a immortalisé le nom de l’abbé Prévost. »
[ii] Taxile Delord, Le Charivari, 26 February 1856: « La véritable Manon aurait raffolé de la musique de M. Auber, vive, coquette, spirituelle et amusante comme elle, montrant, comme elle aussi, à ses heures une pointe de sensibilité. »
[iii][iii] J. Lovy, Le Ménestrel, 2 March 1856: « Parlons de l’illustre compositeur qui nous a donné tant de ravissantes œuvres; de M. Auber, l’élégant mélodiste et le plias fin ciseleur musical de l’école française. Ce qu’il a semé de chants suaves et de richesses harmoniques dans celte partition de Manon Lescaut n’est point chose analysable. C’est frais, c’est gracieux, c’est la jeunesse même unie à ce que l’art a de plus coquet. »
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