Original article published on Sharps & Flatirons here.
“It has never been a matter of wonder to me that human resolutions are liable to change; one passion gives them birth, another may destroy them,” wrote L’Abbé Prévost in his classic novel Manon Lescaut from 1731.
Manon, a young French girl, is tormented by dreams of grandeur, yearning for a life filled with luxury and wealth in early eighteenth-century Paris. But as she climbs the social ladder, she soon finds herself torn between the power of true love and her own self-destructive greed.
The tragic tale of Manon will take the stage for Boulder Opera at the Dairy Arts Center. The company will present Jules Massenet’s opera Manon based on the novel Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 18 and 19 (details below), with Amy Maples as Manon and Cody Laun as Des Greiux, under stage director Gene Roberts and conductor Steven Aguiló-Arbues.
The modernized production, set in the 1960s, aims for a fresh take on the classic.
“In certain ways, the excesses and heavy drug use of the 1960s can serve as a mirror for the original time period,” Laun says. “The opera is a cautionary tale of what will happen if you take this to excess. I think [the different eras] parallel each other well. The nostalgia and the familiarity will help to draw people in.”
Originally set at the height of the Belle Époque (beautiful epoch; 1871–1914) in Paris, productions of Massenet’s Manon are often quite lavish. For the extravagant, stylish haute couture, women wear ornate dresses crafted to exaggerate the S-shaped Edwardian silhouette, while men don sleek tailored sack suits.
In contrast, Boulder Opera’s production will be more toned down with colorful, vintage fashion. This era certainly has its draw—as shown with Jean Aurel’s 1968 film Manon 70, starring Catherine Deneuve, set in the swinging ‘60s in Paris.
In any era, Massenet’s opera holds its own with the vibrant music and dynamic storytelling. The opera, which debuted at Paris’ Opéra-Comique in 1884, has become one of the composer’s greatest and most enduring successes for a reason.
“In his musical language and storytelling, Massenet uses lots of lush textures and rubato for the expressive shaping of phrases,” conductor Aguiló-Arbues says. “His music is full of charm and speaks directly to the [audience].
“The music is almost cinematic. The overarching, sweeping ideas and characterizations paint the scenes in a very emotional, grandiose way.”
The opera depicts the passionate relationship of Manon and Des Grieux, her on-and-off-and-on-again lover. While Manon aspires to have social status and wealth, Des Grieux dreams of a simple, happy life with his partner. A dissatisfied Manon soon gives in to her greed, and the couple’s conflicting dreams pull them apart, eventually leading to their downfall.
“Manon is that wild card friend who is always flying on the seat of her pants, barreling into life fearlessly,” Maples says. “She’s a ‘yes’ person.”
It can be easy to play into the role of Manon as the femme fatale, a seductive, manipulative woman who uses her beauty and charm to ensnare men like Des Grieux and De Brétigny, her other love interest. However, Maples hopes to dig deeper into Manon’s motivations and backstory, to help the audience see Manon as a more sympathetic character.
“At first, I didn’t sympathize with her,” Maples says. “I just thought she was selfish. But then I realized that underneath all of her desire for wealth is actually a drive for significance in the world. For me, that opened up my heart to her a little more.”
During the opera, Manon is only 15 years old. This can be easy to forget, considering the sophistication of the role, which requires a mature virtuoso soprano. The vocally demanding part has even been described as “the French Isolde” by American opera singer Beverly Sills.
Manon’s arias call for light agility, as in “Je suis encore tout étourdie” (I’m still all dazed), virtuosic power with sparking high notes during her time with the Parisian aristocracy, as well as delicate sensibility, as in the mournful “Adieu, notre petite table” (Farewell to our little table).
Her duets with Des Grieux need to be convincing yet not melodramatic, as the two fall suddenly into an all-consuming love.
“There is lots of imitative music between Manon and Des Grieux, where one will echo the other’s theme or finish it for them,” Laun says. “This shows how their relationship is sweet on one hand, but it is also a little codependent and unhealthy. They can’t live well without each other.”
Throughout the opera, Massenet relies on leitmotifs like this to characterize each protagonist and express their turbulent emotional states. Combining Wagner’s concept of musical drama with the lyricism of the Italian operatic tradition and the expressiveness of French grand opera, Massenet showcases his compelling, distinctive style.
Thus, Massenet’s music draws the audience into the lover’s misadventures and heartbreak. As Manon barrels headfirst toward her inevitable downfall, the audience begins to sympathize with the misguided young girl—even though, in the end, she only has herself to blame for the personal tragedies she faces.
“This shows how people should have the freedom to delight,” Laun says, “but it’s also a cautionary tale of (the need for) temperance and discernment, because getting too carried away can lead to one’s own destruction.”