- Manon Lescaut
Manon was 160 years old when Puccini encountered her in the early 1890s, but her charms were evergreen. Despite the familiarity of the subject, and the success of Massenet's recent Manon (1884), Puccini did not hesitate: after all, as he is said to have remarked, "A woman like Manon can have more than one lover."1 He did not fear comparison with Massenet, believing that style and sensibility would keep their Manons distinct—and that his would be superior. He told his librettist, Marco Praga, that Massenet "feels [the story] as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion."2 This oft-quoted remark could serve as an epigraph for the 1998 La Scala production, designed by film director Liliana Cavani, which rejects the traditional powdered wigs, mannered gestures, and heavy, constricting costumes that might distance us from the characters. The break with tradition is most conspicuous in the brief scene of Manon's toilette at the beginning of act 2, in which Manon instructs her attendants to administer the curler and powder, but then impatiently darts away from their ministrations, leaving her hair long, loose, and red. Similarly, she considers several placements for her beauty mark, but rejects them all and leaves her face unadorned. In place of the expected corset and panniered gown, she wears a loose green robe over a chemise and ruffled pantaloons.
Cavani's decision to present the protagonists in a free, near-verismo style, unencumbered by neoclassical decor, sets her free to convey new meanings through costumes and mise-en-scène. For example, when we see Geronte, his servants, and his friends in their powdered wigs and frock coats in act 2, their costumes appear not merely picturesque, but archaic. They connote wealth and age, and more importantly suggest the artificial, self-satisfied nature of Geronte and his ruling class, whose authority has clearly lasted too long and become decadent and oppressive. Manon's costumes, by contrast, do not situate her in a particular place or decade. Their most significant elements are the recurring colors of sea green and black, which complement her long red hair and suggest mermaids, [End Page 133] serpents, and fatality. (The combination of red, green, and black might even allude to the gambling which is so central to Manon and Des Grieux's story, but which Puccini barely mentions.) The sinister connotations of this color scheme convey Manon's dual nature as heroine of a historically specific tale and as timeless, mythic femme fatale.
Few modern literary heroines can boast such a long fascination or such a wide influence as Manon Lescaut. The Abbé Prevost's novel, first published in 1731, is a catalog of love in all its guises: young and idealistic love, love threatened by rivals, love betrayed, love blocked by parents and authorities, and love as spiritual devotion and carnal combustion. The naive protagonist, Des Grieux, recounts how he had fallen in love with Manon at first sight in the courtyard of an inn; how her family tried sending her to a convent but how she instead ran away to Paris with him; how wealthy rivals repeatedly lured Manon away, turning their relationship into a series of betrayals and ardent reunions. The novel attained mythic status in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thanks to its delicate fusion of comic, pathetic, and erotic elements. At the same time it is a rake's progress, tracing the hero's descent into misery as he pursues his dishonorable love. Des Grieux abandons his family, swindles his best friends, betrays his religious vows, cheats at cards, serves time in jail, follows Manon to Louisiana, and there duels with a rival, resulting...