Passion at a Price: Massenet's 'Manon'

WOO-1416-Manon-250Generally, opera is considered a serious art form. By contrast, composer Jules Massenet  has been described as a lightweight -- and at times, it's easy to hear why. Even his wildly popular Manon, an opera with a deadly serious story, has plenty of froth.

But it's not only in the supposedly lofty world of opera that we find astonishingly successful composers with lightweight reputations. For another, we can look closer to home, at a legendary figure of American musical theater: Cole Porter.

Porter was a true Broadway genius, a brilliant lyricist and a first-rate composer -- the creator of dozens of hit songs and shows. Was Porter a "lightweight"? Sure, plenty of his best-known songs sound that way: "You're the Top" and "It's De-Lovely" don't pack much emotional wallop.  

Yet Porter did have a serious side. His classic song "Love for Sale" conjures up the gritty, workaday side of prostitution. The subject matter and its sophisticated, even disturbing tone are hardly the work of a lightweight songwriter.

Getting back to opera, the two-sided nature we hear in Cole Porter's familiar songs and shows can also be found in Massenet's Manon, an opera which touches on the same dramatic territory as Porter's "Love for Sale."

As the opera opens, its title character is an innocent 15-year-old -- a kid whose amorous "inclinations" have prompted her mom and dad to ship her off to a convent.  At first, that seems a bit harsh.  By the time the opera is over, we might wonder if her parents were prescient.  To introduce the title character, Massenet gives us music representing Manon's beauty, and her innocence.  As the drama progresses, it has everything to do with her beauty, but less and less to do with innocence.

During her journey, Manon falls for a well-meaning young man of modest means, who adores her. Before long, though, it's clear that Manon has a taste for opulence as well as romance -- and that she's not above cavorting with rich men she doesn't love in exchange for a luxurious lifestyle. Despite the frothy spots, Massenet's opera doesn't pull any punches, and he gave it all the complex, emotionally powerful music it needs to drive home some pointedly unsavory realities.

On this edition of World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Manon from the Malmö Opera in Sweden, starring soprano Georgia Jarman as Manon and tenor Joachim Bäckström as Des Grieux, in a production led by conductor Leif Segerstam.