- Manon in the Desert, Wagner on the Beach
The fourth act of Manon Lescaut takes place, notoriously, in a desert "on the borders of New Orleans." Previously, in Paris, Manon had been arrested as a common prostitute and exiled to the New World. Now she is in flight again. As the curtain opens, she and her lover Des Grieux are half-dead—starving and exhausted; midway through the act he goes off in futile search of shelter. While Des Grieux hesitates, and then leaves the stage, we hear an extended orchestral passage that culminates in the citation of a theme that has represented the characters' love for much of the opera. At the end of the third act it was sounded triumphantly, triple forte, by the full orchestra. Now it is luminous but also distant, like a memory.
Moments of purely instrumental writing such as this, coupled with a canny use of leitmotifs, have often earned Puccini's opera the epithet "Wagnerian." The passage also brings to mind, and quite clearly, Verdi's ironic treatment of the "bacio" theme in the last act of Otello. But in the next measures Puccini leads the listener into a rather different sound world (ex. 1). The love theme is cut off with five blunt chords: B-flat minor, F minor, B-flat minor, F minor, B-flat minor. The tempo then relaxes, these same harmonies are slowed down from quarter notes to half notes, and they alternate unceasingly for the first thirty-seven bars of Manon's aria "Sola, perduta, abbandonata." After a contrasting passage of exactly equal length, the two chords return, oscillating again until the aria's close.1 "One of the most original pages of the score," according to Julian Budden, this static aria has no obvious precedent in the Italian repertoire.2 If the lyrical love theme looks back to the traditions of the nineteenth century, Manon's ostinato heralds the twentieth.
Students of Puccini will be able to name many other similarly static pages in his operas: the seemingly endless pedal point at the beginning of the third act of La bohème, the ostinati that gird the opening of Suor Angelica, the massive first-act finales of both Tosca and Turandot. Some may also be reminded of similar juxtapositions of pure repetition with more conventional lyricism. Describing the obsessive opening of Turandot, Budden remarks with some surprise "that an elegiac theme redolent of the world of Manon Lescaut should form a natural complement to material so uncompromisingly modern."3 But that contrast, I would suggest, is itself a feature of Puccini's first major opera. [End Page 51]
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My essay focuses on Manon's aria, and particularly its ostinato, examining it in a variety of contexts.4 In part, this is an experiment. Although one can find countless descriptions of Puccini's arias as "original" or "moving," it is rather [End Page 52] more difficult to imagine what a close reading of these pieces would look like. "Sola, perduta, abbandonata" seems a good place to begin. At the same time, though, I want to raise some larger questions about the origins, the meanings, and the historiographical implications of an important, understudied aspect of Puccini's style.
As is often noted, Manon Lescaut was Puccini's first, and perhaps only, unqualified critical success.5 Reasons why the opera would immediately have endeared itself to critics in the 1890s are clear enough: it is a textbook study in the balancing of Italian lyric traditions with Wagnerian innovations; its neoclassical touches exemplify Verdi's much-cited call of "torniamo all'antico." At a time of real uncertainty about the future of Italian opera, it must have seemed both a sensible and a comforting step forward. Yet the fourth act, and especially Manon's aria, was considerably more disconcerting. Although it is possible to find positive reviews of the act, it is much more common to read descriptions of it as overlong and boring. The Gazzetta teatrale italiana complained about "questa lunghissima scena;"6 and, after praising Puccini's "sobriety...