- Manon Lescaut and the Myth of America
Of all Puccini's mature operas, Manon Lescaut is one of the least associated with global or exotic themes. A setting of an eighteenth-century French sentimental novel that had inspired the work of Alexandre Dumas fils, with a premiere that some thought symbolized the handing over of the Italian operatic tradition from the old maestro of Busseto to the fledgling from Lucca, Puccini's first success has from the time of its earliest reception implicitly been glossed as simply European.1 Considered within the context of Puccini's later work, Manon Lescaut's French locations seem an obvious precursor to the Parisian ambience of La bohème; the usual narrative of Puccini's career tells us that it was not until the turn of the twentieth century that his attention focused on international tales such as Madama Butterfly and La fanciulla del West. The fact that Manon Lescaut's last act is set in a "vast plain on the outskirts of New Orleans" is most often mentioned merely as a precursor of La fanciulla. This has in part derived from a longstanding critical opinion: that act 4 of Manon Lescaut, despite including some of Puccini's most remarkable music, was—in Mosco Carner's words—a "blunder," its twenty-minute death scene betraying Puccini's still developing sense of theater.2 Perhaps also influential in turning critics away from the act's ambience has been its apparent lack of visual markers of the New World. The bare landscape is completely unlike the opulent, intricate sets for the first three acts; as Alessandra Campana has commented, "in contrast with the over defined and detailed depiction of the environment provided for the other acts, this set negates any characterization, and offers instead a static picture of an undifferentiated space that represents a 'nowhere.'"3 As a visual expression of the title character's isolation and despair, the featureless backdrop is apt; it represents, as Roger Parker has argued, an apotheosis of a nineteenth-century trajectory toward interior emotion on the opera stage.4
Yet Manon Lescaut, for all its high emotion and interiority, is a tale founded on the mundane physicality of travel. Prévost's novel, a series of scenes set against a dizzying array of changing locales, of course had to be pared down to make an opera. But each of Puccini's plot pivots still hinges on movement. The scenarios, perhaps more than in any other Puccini opera, mark transient events [End Page 62] and passing moments: Manon in transit to a convent, outside the roadside inn where she meets and runs away with Des Grieux; her life in Paris in the house of a rich protector; her deportation from Le Havre to the New World. The final act starts and ends on still another path, this time through the "vast plain" outside New Orleans as the two lovers drag themselves toward an unknown destination. While this journeying seems to provide a metaphor for emotional growth, one of the defining features of Prévost's story is that no one develops or progresses psychologically: Des Grieux remains unswervingly faithful to Manon in the face of every difficulty, and Manon remains unswervingly unfaithful to him. Perhaps, then, the wilderness of the New World has a significance other than the metaphorical: it might even contribute to a different understanding of the opera, one separate from a reading that concentrates on emotion and inner worlds.
The New World's cultures and geography, after all, were subjects of increasing interest to the Italian popular imagination of the early 1890s. The nineteenth century had seen the Americas become increasingly familiar to Europe, but 1892 had been particularly significant, marking as it did the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's landing in the Americas. The occasion had prompted various celebrations typical of the postunification era, most prominently in Genoa, then believed to be the city of Columbus's birth. As is clear from the six-volume Raccolta di documenti e studi pubblicati dal R. Commissione Colombiana pel quarto centenario della scoperta dell'America—which was followed by a comprehensive bibliography—the New World was...