Posts Tagged ‘Prevost’

Final Scene, DesGrieux (Roberto Alagno) and Manon dying (Christine Opolais)

Friends and readers,

As a lover of Prevost’s famous story (as written by him), and having been moved by an intelligent and powerful European production of Massenet’s Manon (5 years ago now), Puccini’s Manon Lescaut as produced by the Met was something of a disappointment. It reminded me of an early 19th century French operatic version of Romeo and Juliet Jim, I, and Izzy, saw years ago at Glimmerglass, where until the last act I felt almost nothing and then suddenly at the long death scene where the lover awaken and dying grieve at length I was overcome with emotion at the lyrical beauty, acting, even words (subtitles though they were) of this opera. In this new production at the Met, the very last scene of Manon dying at length in Des Grieux’s arms sent through me waves of identification as I felt them experience her dying, with the music and singing heart-breakingly beautiful as inch-by-inch she despaired and died, and he enacted a deep form of empathy with her.

The whole of this Manon Lescaut exists to get us to this long many phase final scene. Puccini has stripped Prevost’s story of much of its rational or content. All he is interested in are the lovers when they are anguished; how they got there, is irrelevant it seems. Prevost’s original lovers are desperately trying to escape the norms and demands of the ancien regime: Des Grieux’s father wants him to become a priest, and doesn’t care if it would be utterly hypocritical of him. When Des Grieux refuses, the father uses lettres de cachet to imprison him. Prevost’s Manon is much lower in rank than Des Grieux and so unsuitable as far as the father is concerned, first seen in chains, being sent out of France as prisoner. In Massenet Manon is simply lower middle, without dowry, her brother is attempting to force her into a nunnery, but beyond that much of the original 18th century context is kept. In Prevost and Massenet, the two flee together; they are no paragons: he gambles to live, drinks, has had other women, and she deserts him more than for rich old man, but they do want to live lives true to their emotional realities and desires. They fall lower and lower, become thieves, crooks, in and out of trouble with the police, in Prevost finally ending in a desert in Louisiana, looking out on a meaningless horizon (the story is fideist), starved, exhausted, with her falling ill and dying. Massenet has a substitute setting in France for the last gouging into death.

Puccini cut all this out, and we begin with Manon as a beautifully innocent young woman, utterly stereotypical non-entity, Des Grieux, a chivalrous male student (anticipating La Boheme) who fall in love,


though her successful flight from her brother is engineered by Geronte (Brindley Sherratt), a vicious old man who turns up in the first scene (taking the place of Prevost’s father figure). In other words, Puccini robbed the characters of their content, context, complexity, their interest, leaving us with archetypes. The first scene of this production put me to sleep. Everyone was dressed in World War Two clothes and the soldiers were Nazis, but beyond that it looked and felt like some bland cheerful group of tourists at a cafe beneath museum steps.


Only Sherratt’s acting of a seething resentful old man and fine dark voice gave the scene any bite. If Puccini did this because the 19th century audience would not tolerate overt amorality, it didn’t work, as the program notes and wikipedia informed us the opera was thought scandalous and censored.

The production came alive in the second act. Genuinely funny in a self-reflexive way was Eyre’s original way of presenting a now rich and vulgar Manon and her brother, Lescaut (Massimo Cavalletti) as bored silly by the operatic songs and music of her aging and as we have felt mean, spiteful, (and as we discover) vengeful ancient lover-keeper, Geronte (Brindley Sherratt):


When Grieux rushes in and he and Manon become lovers once again,


only to be caught and threatened by said old man, the action on stage was compelling enough. There is even a suddenly evocative song between them. The stage seemed to me modeled on Lulu as there was again a long stairway down with a prison-like door out of which came first the old man, and then a group of Nazi officers who arrested Manon at the orders of her ex-protector. Maybe it was the same set with different accoutrements? (A penny saved is a penny got.) The furniture was all similarly tasteless vulgarly show-offy, though nowhere as graphic or meaningful as in Lulu (which had pictures to go with the setting). Christine Opolais’s dress evoked Marilyn Monroe on a particularly egregiously sexy day.

This use of sets to mirror the later 20th century continued in the third act and last scene. The prison looked like places where people are kept in solitary confinement, not gothic so much as places where senseless injustice is going on. (Welcome to the US or Egypt or a dozen or more other countries in the world, 2016.) Puccini’s Lescaut has tried to bribe a soldier to release Manon to Des Grieux and in this act the soldier fails to help them.


And at this point the opera moved into doing what it was there to do. Our lovers become desperately clinging anguished figures:


They did sing so movingly, and the music began to soar. I recognized in the second act and again here music I’ve heard before. Lescaut is shot (and looks like he is dying), Manon taken aboard a ship for the colonies with other women prisoners (prostitutes, poor women), with Des Grieux succeeding by begging to get the captain to let him come aboard. So now we are with refugees.

And then we are in our last scene, which appears to be a bombed out world. It looks like gigantic pillars of some iron building have fallen this way and that. There is a building still standing where all the glass has been shattered, and our lovers have to stumble their way up and down the columns. Here Des Grieux raises himself to cry out against what is happening (since the empty horizon and desert are gone it cannot be against some Godless wasteland)


He then runs off to find help. She thinks he has deserted her and Opolais’s acting and singing were unbearably despairing, plangent. I lost it and began to cry. And when he returned, we were set for our Romeo and Juliet close.

The reviews of the production have not been generous. Justin Davidson of the Vulture saw the sets as preposterous, making no sense and the second transposition from Puccini’s gutting to WW2 adding nothing. Anthony Tomassini of the New York Times came closer when he suggested the production was trying for a a noir twist. To be fair to Puccini, I found the Met HD Massenet Manon similarly misconceived. Both critics, though, made the same point that my daughter, Izzy, dwelt on as what made the opera finally an extraordinary experience despite the useless transposition, distracting sets, and simplification into shallowness:

The best way to deal with it, perhaps, is to get the best vocal talent available to infuse into the characters all the feeling they can. The Met, thankfully, lucked out when, having lost their original leading man, they managed to get Roberto Alagna to sing instead; he may be a little older than he was when movie theater audiences first saw him, but he can still do passion with the best of them. Plus the younger Kristine Opolais proved able to hold her own with him. The most effective part of the opera was the end, when all the fancy sets and costumes were removed, and they didn’t even attempt to explain where in the world the two characters were, just had them suffer and die and let us be sad over it.

During one of the (long) intermissions, we were shown Eyre talking to Gelb, chief director at the Met (responsible for these HD broadcasts and central in choosing what’s produced at the Met and how). I gathered Eyre was aware that Puccini’s operatic story lacks any raison d’etre that makes sense, and he brought in the Nazi regime in order to give us some outward explanation for the scenes and make the opera relevant to day. Certainly today we see all around us flagrant injustice in the way prisons are run, mocking immorality, worship of luxury, indifference to suffering. The trouble is the content of the characters’ story has little to do with this as we experience it today. I take it the original error in Puccini’s concoction of several strung together scenes was to erase the ancien regime and romanticize, or sentimentalize the characters. What Puccini was moving towards was a realization of his masterpiece La Boheme, and he did that in the following year.

The experience though determined me to be sure and get my tickets for Madame Butterfly, the Met’s next production, exchanged for the re-airing of the HD-film later on a weekday night. I will be away the day Madame Butterfly is broadcast and would like not to miss this pair of effective actors and singers get together once again. I can’t find a still of him acting on the floor, crawling around, letting go utterly, but there is one of her at such a moment:



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It is plausible that no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance as regards the original — Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations

One must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is the same as potassium, but with sodium nothing would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates and all patchwork — Primo Levi, “Potassium,” The Periodic Table

Eugene Atget (1857-1927), The Petit Trianon

Dear friends and readers,

My theme: I’ve returned to an old love to do a new project: French-to-English and back again translations in the 18th century. I begin with Walter Benjamin and my own experiences, then cover Beebee’s book, Clary on the continent, Prevost’s different Clevelands, and various different telling individual cases (different Tom Joneses, Radcliffe’s translators); I end on Renato Poggioli’s “The Added Artificer” which deserves to be much better known.


I have a hard time remembering when I was not fascinated by translations. I think it began back in high school when at age 16 I read a probably poor translation into English of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I loved the book and wanted to know more about it, and especially I wanted to read it in French. Later on somehow reading a book in one language and then reading the same book in another gave me an experience of two weirdly interdependent books and thus worlds. When I was in college, I took French for all the years I could, extending my non-major following of it with one-credit courses: such courses met twice a week, but for one and one-half hours of sheer talk in French allowed using our books. We’d take turns using its conversations. Then in graduate school, I took a course in Italian over one summer to fulfill the language requirement (one had to pass two tests in two languages), and just loved the language, again enjoyed so much lining up a text in Italian aligned with its source or target text in English.

Anne Finch when young

During the 1980s I re-taught myself to read French and read French novels, and then for over 20 years starting the middle 1980s I taught myself to read and to translate Italian and translated Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara’s poetry and then wrote an essay on Anne Finch’s translations out of the Italian though the French. Just what I had done at first for Colonna (and what I’ve done since for a poem by Elsa Morante I found in the original Italian with French text facing it).

So when over the past week I dropped one of my projects for this fall term, the paper on Paranoia and Infamy, I naturally turned to the proposal I wanted to send to Chawton, and was happy, even eager to reread some of my books on translation (Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility, The Scandals of Translation, Sherry Simon’s Gender in Translation). Did you know that over 90% of translations into the world are transations into English? how little translators are paid? How women’s writing begins in translation, how they express themselves through its covering medium?

I discovered my old folders filled with essays on translation, some read, some not read, and books and essays just on translation in the 18th century, the 19th and more recently.

Charlotte Smith by George Romney (1792)

My idea was Charlotte Smith’s translation of Prevost’s Manon Lescaut, or some study of intermediary texts between her later novels and Prevost and Rousseau, but to tell the truth I was not sure I could find something to extrapolate out of a tight narrow comparison. I do have Isabelle de Montolieu’s translation of one of Smith’s Solitary Wanderer’s Tale (Corisande de Beauvilliers, and all of M. Montagne’s (whoever he is) French translation of Smith’s Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake, which I also own in English. And of course Montolieu’s translation of Sense and Sensibility (with her preface) and soon will have her translation of Persuasion.

So I went about to look for previous work on individual books I’d done. I’ve now remembered my careful comparative reading of the opening of Radcliffe’s Udolpho with Victorine de Chastenay’s translation of the same text into French, something of Chastenay’s life (she was imprisoned during the terror and lost family members and emerged somewhat shattered and depressed, and various essays on 18th century translations of classics (Riccoboni and Davaux’s Tom Jones, a French and a Dutch translation of Prevost’s Cleveland contrasted to the French texts) and of course Prevost’s Clarisse.

Victorine de Chastenay (translator into French of Radcliffe’s Udolpho)

And I’ve read away and reminded myself of what I once knew. So, I spent Tuesday I spent yesterday reading translation studies and then how women in particular use translation: how the earliest women writers began (felt they had license) by translating, how it works to free, a way to express what is otherwise forbidden (that’s how I see Smith’s translation of Manon Lescaut), a way of declaring love and wanting to share (Chastenay’s Udolpho).

Jean-Antoine Watteau, unnamed shepherdess

I read Mirella Agorni’s poignant, The Voice of the ‘Translatress’: From Aphra Behn to Elizabeth Carter Author, The Yearbook of English Studies, 28 (1998 Eighteenth-Century Lexis and Lexicography): 181-95, and I compared a literal translation of Ovid’s Oenone to Paris with Aphra Behn’s translation/adaptation. In her case (as is not uncommon among men as well as women) she did not have any Latin, so someone gave her an intermediary crib. Behn turned the poem into erotica — on behalf of Oenone, a nobody. Since reading Germaine Greer’s persuasive debunking of all the myths growing up around Aphra Behn, including that she was an aristocrat (born on wrong side of blanket), supported herself sheerly by her playwriting (when it seems rather she combined being men’s mistresses with playwriting and verse, including translations, and pop novellas), I can see why she’d identify with Oenone.

Behn is worth remembering and this unashamed revelling in idyllic
pastoral too. Some of her most moving verses defend her as a translatress:

I by a double right thy Bounties claim,
Both from my Sex, and in Apollo’Ns ame:
Let me with Sappha and Orinda
Oh ever sacred Nymph, adorn’d by thee;
And give my Verses Immortality.

Jane Austen died declaring her immortality in defiance against everyone spending their afternoon so trivially.

‘Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal!


The Abbe Prevost (1697-1763) translated all Richardson and Frances Sheridan’s Sidney Biddulph

Speaking very generally, as the century progressed and the novel achieved more respect, translations became more ostensibly faithful. Paradoxically at the same time (especially if you are working on the literal old model that a good translation is a sort of excellent crib — rather like those who go to movies and critique a film adaptation by how “literally” like it seemed to them to the book), translations became more creative. You can see how the author expressed her or himself through the medium.

Some of the best general essays written thus far on translation are general philosophical ones. A particularly rich one is by Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”. He opens with what may seem a strange idea: “It is plausible that no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance as regards the original.” The analysis in defense of this is brilliant and rich with ideas. One train of argument suggests that any translation is about the encounter of the two languages and two cultures. I find this to be so in my experience of translation. I don’t own the words I use and must use the words of my time and culture and watch them interact with the words and cultural assumptions and whole world view of the other language — French or Italian. He says the desire to translate comes partly from a love of a certain language. Again I know this is so.

Lovelace just before the rape: Simon Brett’s late 20th century illustrations for the Folio Society edition

I reread some of Beebee’s Clarissa on the Continent, about 18th century to modern translations of Clarissa — and abridgements. I know now the Broadveiw edition provides a new edition of the 3rd edition of Clarissa, thus replacing the now out-of-print 4 volume Everyman.

Beebee’s book includes a close reading of two contemporary translations of Clarissa: Prevost and Michaelis’s. He compares these two texts to Richardson’s 1st and 3rd editions of Clarissa (which are themselves different, though both think they must Frenchify the text from the point of view of French taste and ethics). Beebee teaches us how to read translations. He has a chapter where he surveys later translations and abridgements. Particularly of interest to me was Dallas’s abridgement as Trollope wrote a critique of that; it was the book 19th century readers knew Clarissa. After Dallas when some 19th century person says she’s read Clary it’s probably Dallas’s Clary.

In last chapter of Beebee’s book he compares Sherburn’s 1970s and Burrell’s 1950s abridgements. Most of the time today Clarissa is read in an abridgement in the US. In France they read Prevost’s translation (quite different in a number of ways from Richardson); in the US when I was in college (1960s) we read Burrell’s abridgement for Modern Library; the last decade or so students read Sherburn’s abridgement for Rinehart. Margaret Doody has a long article lambasting Sherburn (by the way).

I had been really delighted to come across for the first time ever a close reading and discussion of Burrell. I was not sure of his full name. His edition had never been acknowledged or described in print as far as I knew. I had read Doody and Stuber’s exposure of Sherburn’s abridgement as a far too personal, rigid, a narrow take with interjections by Sherburn (!), but never came across any commentary on Burrell.

Lovelace attacking Clarisssa (Simon Brett again)

It was Burrell’s abridgement of Clarissa that I first read at age 18-19 and was riveted by. I had the not uncommon experience of not being able to put the book down, of being gripped to read on and on into the wee hours of the dawn. The most vivid memory I had though was of disappointment; somehow or other I had missed the rape. I still remember hunting around the text the following morning (after a little sleep) and not finding it. Later false memories began to tell me I had found it later, but now I realize that in fact I must’ve read the rape for the first time in the Everyman reprint of Richardson’s 3rd edition.

Well, guess what? Burrell omitted it! He censored out the scene. It was in the Everyman I realized that Lovelace raped Clarissa in front of the other women; there I first read the famous passage where Clary says she will be his, just give her a bit of time right here, right now.

Nonetheless, I believe that Burrell’s edition influenced me & strongly; Burrell produces a romantic (vexed word I know, but I’m trying to use it in the common sense way of overwrought individualistic emotionalism and rebellion) text. Burrell will omit much surrounding matter here and there which qualifies Clarissa’s subjective interpretations and outcries. I’ve never read Sherburn so didn’t realize he actually interjects his own interpretation and sometimes himself imitates Lovelace — falls into Lovelace’s vein. Beebee shows how both men cut the book in ways which erase some of the worst aspects of Lovelace’s character. Reading them, though, against Richardson’s books teaches us what was most deeply meant to be expressed in the original — especially after you have studied a variety of translation and adaptations.

Final duel (Brett)

I probably loved Clarissa, was more grabbed by it in Burrell’s edition than I would have been in Richardson’s whole text. Burrell omitted much of the long fourth volume, especially all the Job passages and the gruesome and to me egregiously spiteful nasty dramatizations of the deaths of wicked people. He kept Lovelace’s agon, time at the assembly ball, the lead-up to the duel. (See how vicious the Deity can get; watch out is my gut response to these Burrell thought them in bad taste.) Burrell also turned Clary into a pre-Byronic heroine and softened the presentation of Lovelace.

So I was at long last vindicated. 40 years later I learned I didn’t miss the rape after all. I had not fallen asleep over my book.


Samuel Palmer (1805-81), A Dream in the Appenines (1864)

Some of the best studies I read yesterday were about the clash between cultures, languages, created worlds through languages though having the same literal stories and denotative word content, and even syntax (at times). You do have to read more than one language to do translation studies and as the central hegemonic languages in the 18th century for new literary movements were French and English, these are the languages most studies are in. I went into Annie Cointre, Alain Lautel and Annie Rivera’s La Traduction
romanesque au XVIII siecle
, especially a long essay on Prevost’s
Cleveland — in French and English and Dutch versions. It brings home so many issues, including the way history was more valued than fiction and historians paid more, how this book applied to a naive desire to read history made easy and salacious (as in our time). This was by Ellen Ruth Moerman.

Abbe Prevost reading Manon Lescaut aloud to group of admirer (1856 painting by Joseph Caraud)

To do a translation study you must do book history. Prevost had several translators; his book came out in more than one edition and it was censored differently in different countries. The Dutch translator was quite content to translate anti-Catholic church commentary, but the Catholic French one was not. All of them stigmatize the Quakers (everyone dislikes quakers because people resent general non-conformity with the larger group). Then Prevost wanted partly to delude his British audience into thinking his book was really a history, really written first in English and had the English copy published before the French. There are two different prefaces: one published in English opens with a solemn discourse on the uses of history; the other in French is more tongue-in-cheek and he defends himself for writing a preface (what is this hypocrisy that prefaces are to be apologized for; they are needed) and insinuates if you enjoyed the Man of Quality, you’ll find him in this book again.

The 1997 BBC Tom Jones understood how important Fielding’s presence can be in the novel for the reader who wants over self-conscious wit, self-reflexive mockery

Two essays on the translations of Tom Jones, one by Kristina Taivalkoski-Shilove and another by Annie Rivara (on Riccoboni’s Amelie)
very worth while. It was fascinating to discover that the freer early translation by La Place was the Tom Jones most French readers knew and preferred; that it was a labor of love Davaux did when he translated faithfully and carefully and included all the opening narrator chapters. In the 20th century Tom Jones is reprinted in popular editions without these opening chapters. For me the book is ruined; much of the deep pleasure comes from the presence of the narrator. But apparently not for a mass readership who are said to lose “interest.” Amelia was not popular, and Riccoboni’s choice to do it came out of her deep engagement with its story of unhappiness in years of marriage.

From Christopher Cave I was delighted to learn that Andre Morellet, humane philosophe who translated Beccario’s treatise demonstrating that torture turns up no valid information translated Radcliffe’s Italian. He found in her a congenial reformist spirit, but he continually rationalized her prose. She produces a super-abundance of description which cannot depict reality so many experiences are piled into one. He choses a line of description that’s clear and readily pictured. What makes for her original depth psychologically and pictorially vanishes. It’s true you can’t make fun of her text and it’s no longer what some find tedious. I just love myself getting lost in labyrinths with endless doors and locks.

Piranesi, I Carceri (opaque)

Piranesci, I Carceri (clarified)

And I spent time with my old love, Renato Poggioli’s “The Added Artificer” (in a marvelous anthology put together by Reuben Brower, On Translation). Like Venuti, he shows that a translation is another text, and one that is creative in a different way. The translator (like an illustrator) can transcend the first text by transposing another personality into the key of his or her own. You strive after self-expression by looking into a pool of art. Instead of a translation being pouring new wine into an old or previously extant bottle, the translator is taking older wine and making a new bottle with it. The translator is herself a living vessel saturated with a sparkling spirit and recreates the container someone with whom he or she has an affinity has given a previous embodiment to. A good translation may be read for itself, without comparing it to the original work.

Eugene Atget, Grand Trianon, Pavillion de Musique (1923-24)


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Manon (Anna Netrebko) as fashion plate

Dear friends and readers,

Today’s HD Massenet’s Manon was a disappointment. This is an opera adapted from one of the great 18th century novellas, Prevost’s Manon Lescaut (an inset historical tale in Mémoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité). It’s a brief story of two passionate lovers who refuse to be coopted by the established order of the time, which decree (as the novella opens), her a prostitute, fodder for prison gangs, and him a priest, fodder for his family’s position. In an impulse, they flee to try to make a life together and fail for lack of funds and anyone to help them; he turns to unscrupulous gambling and she to supporting them by luring lover-protectors. Abducted by his father (lettres de cachet operative), he is for a time forced into the priesthood, but rebels, turns back to her, and we watch them gradually degenerate until now amoral crooks (the novel parallels Defoe’s Moll Flanders which it’s contemporary with) they must flee the police and end up in an imagined desert in Louisiana where she dies in his arms. An analogous point of view (“I will not serve”) is found in the mid-century equally passionate-subversive Sorrows of Werther by Goethe (also adapted into an opera by Massenet) and in the 20th century has been successfully imposed on Mozart’s Don Giovanni (see Claus Guth: “taking refuge in the pastoral”). When staged and performed to dramatize this core spirit, it is an ironic tragic release: and this is how it was done for HD transmission in the Gran Teatre del Liceu at Barcelona, as a Roman noir, with Natalie Dessay and Rolando Villazon as Manon and her Chevalier.

The staging, implied motivations, costumes and gestures we saw today turned this opera into a series of mostly fatuous and/or improbable manic scenes whose explanatory connections occurring over periods of time were presumably off-stage. About 2/3s of the opera was meant to be done (we were told in the intermission) in a “light-hearted” way: so we begin with a jokey opening in which we watch two young people fall hopelessly unbelievably sentimentally in love at first sight (and thus flee without their suitcases):

Des Grieux (Piotr Beczala) and his teenage Manon (Anna Netrebko),

Curtain closes and then opens on a scene of the two of them in some never-never land on a rigged platform with bed, door, and a small table (so as to visualize a famous line in an aria) in which she betrays him with little trouble for her cousin’s friend on the assumption that this way she will live in luxury and be adored (by rows of men). Intermission and then we are “treated” to an Easter parade of women dressed in lovely belle-like outfits and hoards of men in tuxes whose foscus was an ostentatiously expensive dress and hat for Netrebko (see above). Not happy apparently (suddenly) when told that Des Grieux may now be found at St Sulpice, the curtain goes down and a few minutes later comes up on rows of pews, a pillar and alter (chorus of women in black) where she, Satan-like (she slithers on the floor at one point), seduces the now religiously devout Grieux into bed with her. This end on rare visually startling moment where they clutch one another in a pose of tight fucking on a conveniently nearby bed (behind the pillar).

The shaping idea of this production was young people just want to have fun.

There was some intelligent feeling and moving singing by Beczala in the scene on the platform as he appears to have read and taken seriously the words of his aria wistfully longing for some meaningful loving relationship in a haven far away. The parade did include a ballet by woman dancers which (inconsistently) ended with individual abonnés (upper class males in tuxes who in the 1890s hung around the Paris Opera, pressuring girls to succumb to their desire for sex by paying them) literally forcing the struggling ballerinas off the stage to their lairs. Perhaps this was the most moving sequence in the whole 4 hours. Otherwise except for the sexual clutch, it was everyone going through conventional comic and pathetic routines.

Until the last third of the opera that is. Then we swung us into the melodrama begun in the St Sulpice scene, with a simplified lurid gambling den set before us in which Manon now pressures Des Grieux into gambling because she (he is told) will not live with him unless he is rich. As in her St Sulpice scene she is trussed up into a gown which highlights (outlines) her breasts and hips, this time the lurid color is fuschia:

(I’ve chosen a less revealing pose than the one the posters for this opera have made ubiquitous on ads)

Des Grieux is accused of cheating (which of course he’d never dream of in this production) and she (for reasons which remain unexplained) taken away by the police. The last scene of all is her in a tramp’s shirt and long jacket which seem torn left-overs from a Waiting for Godot production. She is dumped by gendarmes on a vast floor and dies in Des Grieux’s arms. (He has been standing about waiting for her – waiting you see.) Her face was at long last not so clownish with lipstick that went beyond her lips. Backstage in the intermission Netrebko lamented that she had to wear this least of her outfits when she went our for applause.

The lesson of his opera is be sure and attach yourself to someone with a permanent income? Maybe it was a fashion show in disguise, except for that (according to Nebtrebko) lamentable final outfit?

Not exactly what Prevost had in mind, nor even Massenet — though recently a Eurotrash version, did it this way to make fun of, or send up the opera. I admit I don’t know what Massenet had in mind but since he was also attracted to Werther (a puzzled NPR reviewer) maybe he did have some sense of the subversion of these two 18th century novels.

I am glad I wrote a review of the earlier Dessay-Villazon pairing (Samuel Ramey was Grieux’s father) because at first I was blaming Anna Netrebko as dull: I have found in other operas that she leaves me cold as she did here. I found myself moved by her in Anna Bolena only at the close of the opera where it was really the long experience itself that got to me. Jim thinks beyond her suave voice, she is liked because she is young and smooth-skinned and round. She does have dignity. This time though it was not her fault the opera was ho hum. Piotr Beczala’s moving singing was appreciated by the audience which stood up for him and applauded very loudly every time he came forward. But one swallow does not a summer make. Or even a couple. A few other people sang well and gave the piece some emotional or ironically comic resonance.

Izzy seemed bored when I asked her how she felt about the opera, and Jim kept saying well, “this is the level of a Massenet opera. You must not expect depth.” While I’m tempted to say that this is an opera for the year 2012, where many dramas seem intent on dramatizing how the 99% sits in worship of the 1%, I suspect this production is rather a casualty of the determination of the Met management to reach the widest possible common denominator audience. Two years ago Paul Gelb (now the man in charge of the Met who had the idea of making huge sums and gaining a new audience by HD broadcasts) seemed enamored of making the Met resemble Broadway productions. This year Gelb has opted for “traditional” stagings gussied up by huge expenditures (as in the machine for Wagner’s Ring). This time he went too far, too mindlessly. The production and costumes were both by Laurent Pelly and the directing for HD Gary Halvorson (whose name appears as HD director for most of these operas and yet is never interviewed). We did notice the theater was not as crowded as we have seen it, so despite the usual hype reviews, word had possibly got out that this was an opera you could skip.

Read Prevost’s book instead. It’s not very long. In French it’s a poetic gem in prose.


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Natalie Dessay and Rolando Villazon sang & acted Manon and her Chevalier with great aplomb

Dear friends and readers,

Tonight we went for the second time to the West End Cinema in Georgetown, DC, to see and to hear another HD opera from Europe, this time Massenet’s Manon out of one of my favorite eighteenth-century French novels, Prevost’s L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et Manon Lescaut. I enjoyed it very much, partly because I am, like many 18th century people (see J. R. Foster’s The History of the Pre-Romantic Novel) a lover of Prevost. Prevost’s Manon, even in an older English translation so riveted and moved me that I made it my business to read it in the original French, and then went on to read some of the larger novel in which it occurs (Mémoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité), much of Prevost’s finally tragic historical epic-romance, Histoire de Monsieur Cleveland, fils naturel de Cromwell, and then Jean Sgard’s fat literary biography, Prévost romancier. Prevost is one of the great writers of romance of any century. I felt that this opera and this specific production really captured much of the passionate despair, radical protest, and obsessive love of Prevost’s roman noir texts. You might say this was a highly successful yet original film adaptation of a novel 🙂

It wasn’t easy for the singers and everyone involved to do this. The script works to distance the watcher because everything is done so self-consciously, all the characters explain themselves several times over to one another; the costumes were highly ornate:

Dessay in a gorgeous red dress

and the blocking stylized as well as visually extravagant with a controlled wildness:

a symmetrical imprisonment

exultant dancing

Further, 19th century decorums, time, and what was thought stageable prevented the script or libretto writers (Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille) from presenting us with frank sexual scenes and a full panoply of amorality to which our hero and heroine are driven or choose to descend to.

The chaste presentation of their first sexual encounter

The other prostitutes: there was a lot of stage business to fill out the story: sexual encounters, some degrading; stealing, social pressure, manipulation, Marat/Sade vehicles

Nonetheless, the singing was so strong and the acting so magnificent with long scenes of letting go that the limitations of the enunciation were transcended. This was no Eurotrash framing; the people doing the opera did not feel they had to expose absurdities and undermine reactionary scenarios, but rather worked to make more explicit, more elaborate what Massenet had been at such pains to make us understand and sympathize with: two young people’s refusal to be co-opted and engulfed by an inhumane order which they cannot escape, must live in to survive (eat, have shelter) and which turns them to punish them when they disobey its repressive (and to them) hypocritical hierarchical laws.

From one turn of the story where Grieux is imprisoned to force him to become a priest (his father’s choice of profession for him, a typical gothic trope of the era which reflected social realities)

I really wanted to cry at the end when Villazon as Grieux grieved over the dying Dessay-Manon, lifting her of the cart, laying her limp body down, and we saw her hair dissheveled, her clothes filthy, a vision of the opening scene of the book. The first time the Chevalier sees her in the book, she has an iron collar around her neck and is chained into a row of women headed for prison or transportation. As here the book ends on the two of them trying to flee; they actually make it to America; in the opera, only a little beyond the cart and city walls.

Prevost’s Manon Lescaut is a tragic vision pulled out of a story that is like Moll Flanders, a pyschologized picaresque tale of criminal adventurers. Massenet’s Manon is tragic heroic opera pulled out of French grand opera. Prevost’s text as a novel of sensibility can be seen coming out in the actor’s lachrymose expressions (which I don’t mind in the least). At one point the action stopped and all the characters watched a ballet. The eighteenth century style costumes were filled with exaggerated colorful details, poverty combined with panache. The music reminded me a little of bel canto only much more melodramatic, and instead of repetitive patterns the lines were expressionist of the emotions going on at the moment of singing. The close-ups were wonderful and I again much appreciated the subtitles so I knew what was going on. If the translations into English were sometimes inaccurate, they provided the gist of the French so I could make out what the actors were literally singing.

The audience in Barcelona applauded and cheered long and hard for tremendous effort Natalie Dessay put into the part: such a small thin wiry woman to carry so much gravitas. Also for the daring open vulnerability played out by Rolando Villazon. Samuel Ramey was a dignified dense father; I loved his voice (though Jim said it “wobbled”). The other actor-singers were effective as corrupt protectors, libertines, innkeepers, prostitutes, street, inn, court and police people and the whole cast and chorus were whooped, clapped. Individuals doing Gavotte, Poussette and Rosette were great fun. The people in the West End Cinema seem not in the habit of clapping along the way the audience at our local HD opera where we see Met productions usually do, but a few people did clap with me for Dessay. The auditorium was much much fuller than for either of the two Eurotrash productions I’ve seen before, the excellent Claus Guth’s of Don Giovanni and the ridiculous Netherlands La Fanciulla del West. Basically the auditoriums then were empty. People got up talking about the performance which is a good sign.

The theater manager said there will be another season of operas from Europe in the Fall and I put Jim and my email address down on a list to be alerted. I recommend the house white wine (it comes chilled). Next week a real treat: Verdi’s Macbeth from the Royal Opera House, London, starring Simon Keeleyside. One of the interests of all three European operas we’ve seen so far is the difference between the way these European houses do these operas and the Met. The Met is much much more Broadway, Hollywoodized (I assume I’m inventing that word) somehow, hyped up, especially because of the all the framing, the interviews, the explanations drenched in self-praise and flattery. You are left along in peace to make up your mind.

Jim has now also bought 6 sets of tickets for plays, concerts, and events in the 3 week fringe festival next month. So, much pleasure and interest ahead.


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