Manon Lescaut: Ricordi stands fast
By John Rizzo
 

Giulio Ricordi was in a tough spot. After the dismal failure of Edgar at La Scala in 1889, the board of Casa Ricordi wanted to cut their losses and terminate the monthly stipend of Giacomo Puccini. The firm had been subsidizing the 31-year-old composer because the president believed that his current protégé would soon become the successor to Giuseppe Verdi as the undisputed King of Italian Opera. Still having faith in Puccini’s talent, Ricordi, after pleading with his colleagues, not only continued the monthly allowance, but actually increased it, vowing to repay the firm from his own pocket if the composer did not score a success in his next attempt. As things turned out, Ricordi needn’t have worried because Puccini’s next opera, Manon Lescaut, was a critical and public triumph that catapulted the composer into the realm of super-stardom, and also made a ton of money for the Casa Ricordi. Success for Manon Lescaut, however, did not come easily. Indeed, after the first couple of years of work by Puccini and his numerous collaborators, one might have naturally assumed that this piece, like its predecessor, was on the road to disaster.

Having cast his lot with Puccini, Ricordi micro-managed the entire process from concept to production. (The publisher acquired some valuable experience here, as he would have to become personally involved in all future Puccini undertakings.) First, the publisher insisted that Puccini rid himself of Ferdinando Fontana, the librettist for Le villi and Edgar. Fontana had been paired with Puccini by the composer’s erstwhile teacher, Amilcare Ponchielli but Ricordi had never liked the librettist and considered the scapigliato Fontana to be “more of a lawyer-philosopher than a poet.” He then recommended to Puccini the eminent Italian playwright, Giuseppe Giacosa, who had just written a play on some Russian subject. But Puccini rejected the idea because the subject “was not suitable,” nor did he find appealing the suggestion of adapting one of Shakespeare’s histories. Instead, the composer decided to use Abbé Prévost’s well-known novel, L’histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, for the subject of his next opera. As he told Ricordi, “Manon is a heroine I believe in and therefore cannot fail to win the hearts of the public.”

On the surface, it may appear that the composer was so confident of his skill that he need not heed the advice of a well-meaning benefactor because the call of his inspiration and his dramatic instinct was too powerful, perhaps an admirable and necessary reaction by any artist. But it is also possible that Puccini had been shaken by the failure of Edgar to the extent that he would only consider working on a subject that had already been successfully adapted. As a matter of fact, Ricordi was initially opposed to Manon Lescaut for this very reason, reminding his protégé that Jules Massenet had just recently created a successful operatic adaptation of the Prévost novel (Manon, in 1884). But Puccini was adamant and justified his inclination to Ricordi: “Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with the powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion.” Puccini’s assertion is not a bad characterization of the differences between the two pieces, but this project still represents the first of three successive Puccini operas that were based on subjects that had already been embraced by other composers, the next two being La bohème (Leoncavallo) and Tosca (Franchetti).

Regardless of the composer’s real motive, when Ricordi was convinced of Puccini’s determination to proceed with the subject, the publisher commissioned Rugierro Leoncavallo to write the libretto, but the future composer of Pagliacci failed to impress Puccini with his ideas for fashioning an opera. Puccini had Leoncavallo dismissed and personally acquired the services of Marco Praga, a playwright who had no experience as an opera librettist. Aware of Praga’s background, Puccini authorized Praga to hire any poet he wanted to actually compose the verses, which Praga did, in the person of Domenico Oliva. These two constructed a libretto with a four-act format, which resembled that of Massenet’s five-act version even though Puccini had exhorted his literary team to avoid similarities with the earlier work. Act I depicted the introduction of the main characters at the carriage station in Amiens and the flight of Manon and des Grieux. Act II was set in the mean dwellings of des Grieux and depicted the moral decline of the hero, Manon’s infidelity and her yearning for the good life. Act III, scene 1 portrayed the elegance of Manon’s new setup with her rich lover, the reconciliation of Manon and des Grieux and their failed attempt to escape. Act III, scene 2 depicted the embarkation from Le Havre, while Act IV portrayed the death of Manon in the Louisiana wilderness.

Initially Puccini was enthusiastic about this treatment and began composing accordingly. But after about six months, Puccini soured on the libretto as written and complained to Ricordi that his librettists weren’t receptive to his ideas. Indeed, Praga had quit the project because Puccini wanted to radically redo the second and third acts. The original second act was to be eliminated completely and the first scene of the next act was to be inserted in its place. The third act was to be based entirely on the embarkation, a relatively unimportant episode in Prévost’s novel. The fourth act would continue to be set in “a desert near New Orleans.” The poet Oliva tried his best to give Puccini what he wanted but the composer remained unmoved by the poet’s best efforts. Exit Oliva. The respected Giacosa was consulted once more and he recommended another young playwright, Luigi Illica, to finish the job. Illica’s dramaturgy was found acceptable to Puccini, who still grumbled over the verses to the extent that Ricordi himself pitched in with the writing. Even Puccini dashed off a few lines that still exist in the final version. With all these collaborators it is interesting that none of them wanted attribution for the text, and the original stagebill only refers to Puccini as the composer of the work.

Once Puccini had finished the score in 1892, it was up to Ricordi to determine the location of the 1893 premiere. He did not want the opera premiered at La Scala for a couple of reasons. Another La Scala failure may have permanently crushed Puccini’s spirit. Also, the premiere of Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, was scheduled for early in the year and could easily have eclipsed anybody’s opera. So Ricordi finally decided on the Teatro Regio in Turin for Manon Lescaut’s premiere with a date set to precede the opening of Falstaff by about a week. Despite all the wrangling by the creative team, Manon Lescaut was a huge and immediate triumph, enjoying some thirty curtain calls on its opening night. This work by itself assured Puccini’s place in opera history and the composer’s future financial well being. The work was soon produced throughout Europe and the New World, having its Metropolitan premiere in 1907 with Caruso as des Grieux. As early as 1894 the opera was produced at Covent Garden in London, an occasion that prompted perhaps the world’s most influential critic, George Bernard Shaw, to opine, “Puccini looks to me more like the heir to Verdi than any of his rivals.” Ricordi was now completely vindicated.

Manon Lescaut is not Puccini’s most popular opera, but it is a wonderful piece of music drama with lots of great tunes and throbs with the kind of passion that is the trademark of its composer. Anyone who loves Puccini who has not seen this pivotal work should do so.

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