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  • Manon's Choice
  • Laura Protano-Biggs (bio)

A Historical Throwback

In what is recognized as one of the most ingenious concertato finales of the fin de sie`cle, the heroine of Puccini's Manon Lescaut, denounced for sexual misdemeanors, queues with other wanton women but then walks alone from the prison that houses her to an even more inimical enclosure: a vessel that will deport her to Louisiana.1 As the curtains open on the third act, these structures impose themselves on an otherwise bare and dim square at Le Havre, concealing the open waters behind. Bit by bit, the scene is lit to simulate dawn, until a roll call is announced and a crowd amasses which soldiers press into the square's recesses. The women are mute, but their bodies are articulate: the contemporary staging manual that accompanied the first performance, the so-called disposizione scenica, instructs that as their names are called, Elisa "modestamente e tranquillamente va al suo posto" (modestly and calmly takes up her place); that the lascivious Giorgetta "da` una occhiata provocante al Sergente" (winks provocatively at the Sergeant) while Regina passes "pavoneggiandosi con civetteria" (strutting flirtatiously).2 Amongst them a woman called Violetta slips by, reincarnated from the midcentury and Verdi's La traviata.

This tense pantomime, with its constant contention between crowd and soldiers, is an artful distraction from the collective sentiment that characterizes the musical style of this concertato. For the disposizione scenica further indicates: "Il Sergente ha in mano un foglio di carta: il Comandante ha un piccolo libro, sul quale, dopo esaminate le condannate, che passano, prende alcune annotazioni. . . . Di mano in mano che passano, il Coro fa i proprî commenti, sia ridendo, sia segnandole a dito" (The Sergeant holds a piece of paper in his hand: the Commander has a notebook in which, having examined the prisoners who pass by, he makes some notes. . . . As the women gradually pass by, the Chorus make their own remarks, whether laughing or pointing) (18). The crowd's outstretched arms mark a firm separation between spectators and the criminalized women, the slim distance between pointed fingers and target proclaiming their detachment from the women. Across this distance a collective phenomenon is, in [End Page 27] Foucaldian terms, pushed back onto the individual: the crowd, as audience, savors the speculation that the roll call's women are sexually deviant, but does not comprehend its own role in the construction of that perversion.3 The essential means by which the social phenomenon is converted into an asocial one, in which sexual deviancy is positioned as an innate disorder, becomes visible in the detached, impartial role of the Commander. Embodying a contemporary fascination with medical sexology, he scribbles notes as each hip-flaunting woman passes by but believes himself to be insulated from the crowd's behavior.4 In this tableau, both movement towards and detachment from the women equals delight in their perversion.

New trends in visual culture, and their particular resonance in Manon Lescaut, embolden this frame within which Manon and Violetta walk. The moment of Manon Lescaut's composition in 1893 was witness to a new consumerist model of theatrical spectatorship, in which viewing increasingly became a prelude to possession. Central to this development was the haute couture industry, in which items once modelled on starchy dummies were fashioned on bodies licensed to ever greater animation.5 Haute couture was now viewed in a forum of dissimulation, as couturieres such as London's Lady Duff Gordon held tea parties meant to turn couture parades into entertaining plays, with models twirled on chiffon-lined miniature stages.6 This role play soon translated to illuminated theater stages: London and Paris playhouses hosted the earliest runways during which, as a contemporary critic explained, mannequins "could turn at their ease to show to best advantage the thousand and one little details of the gown being introduced."7 The ties between materialist looking and the theater were clinched when a small genre of couture-house dramas was produced.8 The most talked about was Abel Hermant and Marc de Toledo's 1912 Rue de la Paix. Centered on the sexual tension between an exotic Egyptian prince and a...


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