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  • When Manon Takes Off Her Wig
  • Fedele D'Amico
    Translated by Alessandra Campana and Roger Parker

I have been waiting at least fourteen years for a Manon Lescaut like the one with which Schippers and Visconti opened the Spoleto Festival [in 1973]. If you sit by the riverbank long enough, as the optimistic Chinese proverb has it, one day you will see your enemy's corpse float by. The enemy in this case was the tangle of commonplaces that have informed official views of the opera since time immemorial: the opera that in 1893 introduced Giacomo Puccini to the world and that contains more sparks of genius than any of his later works. Such commonplaces include finger-wagging accusations about lack of verisimilitude in the narrative transitions, about the multiplicity of stylistic references, the lack of action in the last act, and above all the missing idyll between the two lovers (Puccini was eager, or so the "experts" claim, to avoid comparisons with act 2 of Massenet's Manon).

Obviously, not every previous Manon Lescaut deserves to be discarded. Schippers himself, for instance, conducted one in Rome in 1969 that was memorable in its own way.1 But it could not entirely avoid the fate that has always dogged this opera: that of being cluttered up by pretty staging details a little à la Prévost and a little à la Massenet—the specters of the two models whom Puccini supposedly had to follow. Strangely enough, nobody seems to have realized that Puccini's real goals had little to do (besides simple practical matters) either with the former's novel or the latter's opéra comique, especially not with the moralizing tone of both: his Manon Lescaut was the first opera in the century to erase completely any notion of good and evil, in a radically sinister way. Nor has the opera anything to do with the delicate psychological lyricism of Massenet's masterpiece, so profoundly rooted in the eighteenth century and in French culture. Puccini was well aware of this: he wrote to Marco Praga that he did not want "powder and minuets" but "desperate passion."2

In Manon Lescaut—and the opera marks that unique moment when Puccini had turned decisively away from Verdi but was not yet immersed in the world of the petite bourgeoisie—love is damned ab aeterno. The plot thus consists of episodes similar to the stations of the cross, where the Calvary becomes more and more apparent as we go on. What is more, the uncontainable volubility of the heroine becomes the symbol of a fate that transcends her. Even to begin to question the coherence of the narrative transitions is as naive as to protest at the [End Page 108] absence of a "lovers' idyll" episode: it is like asking, with a shake of the head, "Where the hell will those two love each other?" The simple answer, of course, is that they will love each other in hell.

Hence the compositional technique of the score; hence the recurring themes (with their wealth of vital energy such as Italian opera, by Puccini or anyone else, would never find again), which in their obsessive search for the realization of happiness keep piling up, twisting around each other as if in a snake's nest. A good example is the Manon theme: at the last moment the two parallel chords of this theme will sink, firmly trapped in their minor-mode version—that same version that had (and significantly) opened the big duet of act 2.

The most striking way in which Visconti suggests that Puccini's opera relates to Massenet's as the devil does to holy water is through his mise-en-scène. The eighteenth century does not figure as such, but is filtered through a late nineteenth-century gaze: Puccini's gaze. Lila De Nobili's sets and Piero Tosi's costumes (with their respective collaborators Emilio Carcano and Gabriella Pescucci) reveal their full potential in the second act, in the opening boudoir scene. Here the "eighteenth century" becomes even more self-conscious, turning into the symbol of that false world with which Manon is satiated but by which she is...


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