“Laurent Pelly’s production won’t please those who nurse a pink rococo vision of the piece,” wrote the Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen in 2010 of the Royal Opera House’s new Manon. “Austere to the point of ugliness… it is set in a Paris closer to the world of Manet and Zola than Fragonard and Louis Quinze.”
Indeed, Pelly’s take on the 1884 opera by Jules Massenet—set to arrive at the Metropolitan Opera later this month with a simulcast slated for April—has much in common with France’s Second Empire (1852–70), the period under the rule of Emperor Napoleon III . That's despite the fact that it was set during the the regency of Philippe d’Orléans (1715-1723).
However, with contemporary political satire a taboo that landed many of Massenet’s contemporaries in hot water, the similar corruptions and scandals in 1715 were a fitting doppelgänger and chic coverup for an operatic critique of the current zeitgeist. (The opera’s source material, Abbé Prévost’s novel Manon Lescaut, also encompassed this time period; the book was banned upon its publication in 1731.)
Coming of age in a post-Revolutionary Paris before Manon was a twinkle in his eye and a tune in his ear, Massenet witnessed the most lasting legacy of the Second Empire: the Haussmannization of Paris under Napoleon III. While Napoleon, who governed Paris at the time, and Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the civic planner who governed the rebuilding of Paris, were not trained artists, they were (not entirely unlike label-mogul-turned-opera-impresario Peter Gelb) both shrewd businessmen who knew what they wanted.
Under Napoleon III’s rule Haussmann put his systematic determination to use in expanding Paris’s boulevards, simultaneously expanding and streamlining the city’s grid for the first time since the Middle Ages and renovating its architecture with uniform residential edifices. The effect was not entirely well-received. Zola himself described it in one novel as a “discreet ostentation” to hide the city’s “internal sewer.”
Anna Netrebko in Laurent Pelly's production of Manon at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden; at the top of the set you can make out Haussmannian roofs. Photo: Bill Cooper
But whatever the reason—political gain or public interest—behind Haussmannization (or Gelbization for that matter), what’s inarguable is that rational design began to take over the arcane plan of an ancient metropolis. And many of the buildings that have come to define the Parisian cityscape are the product of that revamp.
Undergoing similar renovations at the time was French opera. The French Revolution eradicated any remaining Baroque traces, and in the early 19th century, influences were coming from the likes of cultural crossovers in Rossini and Gluck, Verdi and Meyerbeer. In a time where French politicians were trying on every possible government for size, musicians were dabbling with equally cosmopolitan music styles before an unlikely conqueror in Berlioz brought a return to nationalist opera and music.
Unlike Haussmann, Massenet had an extensive knowledge of the arts inherent to his profession, but both men shared a decisive determination. Wend von Kalnein, author of Architecture of in France in the Eighteenth Century, writes that architects of the Enlightenment and Second Empire era “were no longer content to see their buildings glorify the state, the monarchy, or one specific stratum of society." He added, "They aspired to create monuments that would celebrate human greatness, inculcate worthy remembrance, teach moral values.”
One such rebel was Charles Garnier, who constructed the glittering Palais Garnier, an opera house that seats nearly 2,000 and flew in the face of Haussmannian austerity. While incorporating some neoclassical ideals, the building goes for baroque in a way that contrasts the surrounding apartment buildings. Unlike Haussmann’s multi-class apartment buildings, Garnier’s operatic palace was entirely unregulated, focusing instead on beauty and pleasure. Notre Dame remains at the heart of Paris and was isolated as the city’s central spiritual nervous system, but Garnier’s opera house quickly became its secular core.
An example of Haussmannian architecture. Photo: Olivia Giovetti
Such a balance exists equally in Massenet’s world. Napoleon III insisted on maintaining order in a way that can be connected to Des Grieux, the commitment-hungry young student in Manon. Garnier’s opera house and Massenet’s Manon fly in the face of synthesis, unity, spartanism and continuity. “Singing and loving are sweet things, who knows if we’ll live tomorrow?” Massenet’s heroine trills in the fourth act gambling den.
But that’s a few floors above ground level. Massenet had a traditional take on opera in piecing his works out into digestible chunks, or floors. It’s perhaps mere coincidence that French operas of the time were traditionally five acts and Haussmannian residencies contained five floors, but looking at them in this way you start to see parallels. Manon’s first act expertly lays out the groundwork for the ensuing drama, providing porticos into the three main and multifarious ancillary characters, the front door taking shape in the title character—opening with the gamine “Je suis encore tout étourdie” and ushering the listener in with a mournful “Voyons, Manon.”
Immediately you see that Manon is not content to be like every other building on a block, one link in a fluid assemblage of near-identical buildings. As Des Grieux charms her with the idea of living “tous les deux” in the capital city, Manon doesn’t catch onto living together, but rather living in Paris. There’s almost a conquering glint in her eye more on par with Napoleon I than Napoleon III.
The fire of Act I’s finale, setting the course of both Manon’s and Des Grieux’s destructions into action, gives way to a portrait of domesticated bliss in Act II. Violins and flutes pick out feminine, wrought iron curves amid one of Des Grieux’s main themes. If Haussmann’s “noble” second floors boasted two unconnected balconies, one need look no further than Manon’s and Des Grieux’s arias in this act; her “Adieu, Notre Petite Table” and his “En Fermant Les Yeux.”
Both arrive full of sentimentality, but while his is hopeful, hers is regretful. If you didn’t catch the cracks in the foundation of their relationship in their Act I duet, this juxtaposition of solo reflections drives the wedge even further. And yet before that, you want to buy the “pink rococo” picture painted of the lovers in the first five minutes of the act, a respectable couple living perhaps not a noble but nevertheless rich life. But then it would be a pretty boring opera.
Where Manon begins to truly rebel against the system is her gavotte in Act III, the most notable of numbers in the opera and one that is recorded by every soprano worth her salt in coloratura colorings. In Haussmann’s world, third and fourth floors are much like the second, minus the balconies, unelaborate and more utilitarian. Take away Manon’s moments in the corresponding acts and save for a stirring (yet cloister-simple) tenor aria, you’re left with more or less the same effect. That is, if you discount the neoclassical nod in Act III with its Gluck-ian ballet, which exists in the plot solely as a means of appeasing Manon’s eclectic whims while musically offsetting the subsequent unconstrained passion of the St. Sulpice scene.
And it’s the eclecticism of Massenet’s heroine that begins to overtake the opera’s otherwise sober tones (Pelly accentuates this in his costumes, which keep the men’s ensemble clad in severe black top hats and overcoats). The hot and steamy Act III duet, “N’est-ce plus ma main?” is full of sexual and religious taboos, an unbridled and orgiastic swell of strings with an unsettling, reckless conclusion that leads into burst of colors that opens Act IV and flirts with the atonal.
Act V is straightforward as they come, a 15-minute duty dance to Manon’s death punctuated by 45-degree angles of diminished chords (the same angle at which Haussmannian roofs slope) with a unified, though less adorned, balcony of musical themes woven between the preceding four acts. And while musicologist Rodney Milnes considers the reprise of “N’est-ce plus ma main?” added after the work’s premiere to “effectively [sink] the ship,” it can also be seen as a cohesive callback, a symbol of Des Grieux’s uniform devotion to a woman whose fancies ultimately weighed her down.
While her cousin, not unlike Napoleon III or Haussmann, was interested in his own personal gain of power and money, Manon’s beguiling character comes from the fact that she, like Garnier’s opera house, was dedicated to that un-pin-downable concept of pleasure. Manon is a unicorn among the stereotypical woman’s role of settling down, marrying, mothering and maintaining rather than expanding.
Like the work of Haussmann’s architects, Massenet’s musical style quickly fell out of fashion during the turn of the century. Cognoscenti admired the peaks and valleys of Pelléas et Mélisande, a work that Massenet’s contemporary and admirer Saint-Saëns took to task for lacking an “exuberant joyousness.” Strauss’s Salome defined the 20th century upon its premiere in 1906, and Schoenberg’s twelve-tone ideals would carry much of the century down a different path from filigreed arias dedicated to pleasure, beauty and stories of women who live fast and die hard of that all-too-elusive affliction of “exhaustion.” (It’s somewhat ironic that Puccini’s own take on Manon premiered in the final years of the 19th century—all of his 20th-century heroines who die do so definitively at their own hands.)
One can easily see much of early 20th-century opera's take on musical structures of Le Corbusier or Eames. And yet we still happily live with both Haussmann and Massenet, though whether either's body of work lives on as timelessly as each creator had hoped is debatable. And while politicians, composers, architects and opera’s greatest heroines are far from immortal, the effects many of them leave on their respective skylines endure.