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  • "Non Voglio Morir": Manon's Death
  • Susan Rutherford (bio)

The final act of Manon Lescaut ends as it began, in a series of chords that seem like the shiver of death. Within this frame (a sonic coffin?) lies Manon's peroration, "Sola, perduta, abbandonata." Musicologists agree about several aspects of this aria: that it was both original in conception and the only "new" music in the act (otherwise built of thematic cells from preceding moments); and that Puccini himself remained surprisingly ambivalent about it, excising it completely from some later editions of the score and then restoring it with lengthy revisions.1 My point of departure is thus much the same as that of Arman Schwartz's essay in this issue, although my path leads in rather different directions.

Given the acclaimed originality of Manon's aria in modern eyes, we might expect some critical recognition of this aspect in the musical press of the period. But, oddly, quite the opposite occurred. Giuseppe Depanis, in the Gazzetta musicale di Milano, was one of several critics who remained unimpressed: "Manon's monologue has the fault of being conventional as a situation, and of assuming towards the end a note too high, for a dying woman, of heat and passion."2 Why should what we regard as "innovative" have been considered "conventional"? And why, so late in the century, should passione have been regarded as problematic?

Both Massenet's Manon (1884) and Puccini's Manon Lescaut contained final scenes that differed considerably from Prévost's novel. There, Manon and Des Grieux flee New Orleans after their attempts to marry have been foiled by the Governor's decision to give Manon as a bride to his nephew. Des Grieux fights a duel with his rival and believes he has killed him; he and Manon then escape, walking two leagues across a sandy, treeless plain before both collapse. Des Grieux is wounded; Manon insists on tending to him before she too gives way to physical exhaustion. It is then Des Grieux's turn to care for her:

We had spent part of the night quietly enough. I thought my beloved was asleep and scarcely dared to breathe for fear of disturbing her. At dawn I touched her hands and noticed that they were cold and trembling. I held them to my breast to warm them. She felt the movement, made an effort to grasp my hands and murmured faintly that she thought her last hour had come. At first I took these words [End Page 36] for the sort of language ordinarily used in misfortune, and I merely answered with tender and consoling words of love. But her frequent gasps of breath, her failure to answer my questions, the pressure of her hands as she continued to cling to mine, told me that the end of her trials was near. Do not ask me to describe what I felt, or to report her last words. All I can find to say about that dreadful hour is that I lost her, and that I received tokens of her love even as she was passing.3

If Manon found no shade from the sun's pitiless exposure of her dying body, Prévost nevertheless shielded her last moments from the reader's prying gaze. Neither Massenet nor Puccini followed his path.

Developing opera from nontheatrical sources such as Prévost's novel brings special difficulties. Literature's exploration of interiority and its descriptive capacity are infinitely flexible; theater's dependence on external action demands a more concrete architecture of visual signs. Verdi and his librettist Piave found themselves struggling with just such a transition from private to public space in their 1848 setting of Byron's poem The Corsair, in which Conrad returns from his voyage to find his beloved Medora dead and then, dislocated with grief, he himself mysteriously disappears. It is a conclusion that effectively captures the essential unknowability of the restless pirate. But for opera in the late 1840s such irresolution was unacceptable: it lacked the resounding closure theatrical spectacle demanded, and provided no opportunity for the vocal and histrionic prowess of the lead singers. Verdi and Piave therefore staged—somewhat awkwardly...


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