On May 17, 1983, almost exactly 90 years after its premiere, Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" received an unusually fine performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Fortunately, the cameras of BBC Television were on hand for the occasion, and that performance will be shown tonight in Washington, from 7:30 to 10 on Channel 5.
Performances of grand opera on prime-time network television occur only slightly more often than visits of Halley's comet. In this case, Metromedia has found material worthy of the rare occasion. No doubt, the chief selling point was the presence of two celebrity performers, Kiri Te Kanawa and Placido Domingo, in the leading roles.
Hard-core opera lovers will be happy to know that in this production the celebrities also have a first-class supporting cast, and that they perform at the level that has made them superstars. Their voices are in prime condition, and (perhaps more important for television) both turn in fine jobs of acting. Giuseppe Sinopoli conducts eloquently and the lively stage direction of Go tz Friedrich has the kind of pictorial appeal and attention to fine detail that are essential for the close-up video medium.
For those with high-tech home video systems, the same performance is available in the LaserDisc format (Pioneer Artists PA-84-072, three sides), minus the subtitles but with a libretto and with considerably better sound than can be coaxed from most television loudspeakers.
"Manon Lescaut" was Puccini's third opera and his first success, launching a series of triumphs that continued almost unbroken for the rest of his life. Composing it was a calculated risk; Jules Massenet's "Manon," based on the same novel and composed nine years earlier, was a runaway hit, with more than 200 performances in its first decade at the Ope'ra Comique in Paris. Stylistically, it is a product of Massenet's ripe maturity and is more finely crafted than the work by Puccini, who was still in his twenties and learning his trade.
But Puccini was confident. "Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with the powder and the minuets," he said. "I shall feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion." He was right about the "desperate passion," and his optimism was justified. He had found the formula that would motivate his most successful future efforts: a vulnerable heroine with whom he could fall in love before sending her to a colorful death in the last scene.
"Manon Lescaut" is the story of a young woman torn between her love of luxury (embodied in Geronte di Ravoir, the French minister of finance who becomes her sugar daddy) and her love of an ardent young student, the Chevalier des Grieux. The big confrontation comes in Act 2, where the Covent Garden production blends the themes of luxury and passion superbly. Manon is installed in Geronte's home, engulfed in servants, flatterers, a dancing master -- and boredom and nostalgia for des Grieux.
"A bored woman is a frightening thing," says her brother, who has been marketing her charms like a hot stock, and he rushes off to get des Grieux -- who has won a fortune playing cards and hopes to parlay it into a controlling interest in Manon.
Des Grieux finds Manon alone and they have a passionate duet that is interrupted by Geronte, who runs out to get the police; he is, after all, a cabinet minister and he can have Manon imprisoned and exiled on charges of immorality. They have time to escape, but Manon delays them, gathering up her jewelry, and she is caught, tried and exiled to Louisiana, where she dies, with the faithful des Grieux at her side, on "a desert island near New Orleans."
It may sound a bit silly in summary, but no more so than most of what happens on prime-time television -- and the music is splendid. Moments of drama and pathos are scattered liberally throughout, notably in act 3, where Manon is literally dragged onto a ship -- part of a parade of prostitutes being deported, and in the death scene in Act 4. The interlude between Acts 2 and 3 is as fine as any orchestral music Puccini ever wrote, and Sinopoli conducts it beautifully.
Domingo and Te Kanawa rise to their great moments superbly, and they are well supported right down to the opera's smallest roles. Outstanding performances are given by Forbes Robinson as Geronte and Thomas Allen as Manon's despicable brother.