The Italian conductor Carlo Rizzi is once again conducting the La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra in the repertoire for which he is best known: Puccini. Rizzi has a special passion for Puccini’s operas and Manon Lescaut is a long-awaited opportunity. Several weeks before the start of rehearsals he talks about the richness and incredible theatricality of this youthful work by his fellow countryman.
What does Puccini mean to you?
Puccini is of course central to the repertoire of an Italian opera conductor! A couple of years ago I made my debut at La Monnaie with La Bohème and I am delighted that I now have the opportunity to conduct this new production of Manon Lescaut - along with Il Trittico, one of the few Puccini operas I have not yet conducted. It so happens that I’m conducting the infrequently staged Il Trittico in Copenhagen, so Puccini is in the ascendant this season!
Il Trittico is not often performed, but neither does Manon Lescaut have the popularity of La Bohème or Tosca. And it had a difficult birth…
Every composer has operas where the music flows of its own accord, operas that sweep you along from the first note to the last. La Bohème and Tosca fall into that category but Manon Lescaut does not. Puccini revised Manon Lescaut many times, just as he did Madama Butterfly and after that Turandot. In terms of ‘musical flow’ Manon Lescaut is somewhere in the middle: some parts are very free, both in terms of the music and the action; but there are other passages – the second act in particular - which are a little more difficult to bring to life. Of course the second act contains some fantastic moments, like Manon’s “In quelle trine morbide”, but I have the feeling that Puccini had rather more difficulty evoking the false, unreal world Manon finds herself in at this point. This certainly has to do with the world of eighteenth-century gallantry, which he conjures up by means of stylized forms like the madrigal and the minuet.
Puccini didn’t make it easy for himself by telling the story in four separate acts; he wanted to make his work sufficiently different from Massenet’s Manon opera. Was that a real constraint?
With the exception of Il Trittico (which consists of three stories) and his second opera Edgar, most of Puccini’s operas display great temporal continuity: in La Bohème and in Turandot the first two acts form an entity, in Butterfly the first and the third acts do that, while Tosca takes place in the space of a single day … Manon Lescaut is the only one of Puccini’s operas where each of the four acts is separate, both in time and in place. Remarkably enough, the only ‘continuity’ is provided by the (symphonic) intermezzo between the second and third acts. Whether consciously or unconsciously, in Manon Puccini took a different approach. Was this prompted by the need to do something different from Massenet? Or did it have to do with the libretto, which omits the passage where Manon and Des Grieux live together until the money runs out and she moves in with Geronte? I have no definitive answer. But whether the reasons are musical or dramaturgical, the ‘flow’ is more often interrupted than in his other operas.
What do all the revisions of the libretto and the score tell us about Puccini?
Here I feel duty bound to defend Puccini! All too often he is appreciated only for his beautiful melodies, which have given rise to the misguided idea that he must be an easy, superficial composer. The fact that Puccini went on and on revising and orchestrating the work shows that he wanted to delve deep. He was gifted with a talent to compose sublime melodies, but that should not prejudice us against him. As a conductor I only have to look at the orchestration of his operas to discover a treasure-house of wonders. You can feel how he was searching, experimenting with timbres…
Fortunately, recent Puccini studies have tempered that criticism, though the prejudice is still there to some extent. So for a work like Manon Lescaut, which is bulging with beautiful melodies, isn’t it important to emphasize the other qualities of the score as well?
It is indeed a phenomenally rich score, even without the vocal part. Compared to other Italian composers of his time, Puccini was much more progressive. Rather than writing purely vocal parts with an accompaniment, everything was interwoven. There are of course passages where the orchestra only has an accompanying role, but in many other places the drama is actually driven by the orchestra. Consequently, it is important for a conductor to strive for a global vision. Drama and music cannot be separated. Moreover, like Verdi, Puccini goes straight to the essence. There aren’t many elements that can be removed from his score without fundamentally changing the colour of it. So Puccini’s music was not created purely for the sake of beautiful melodies, but for the drama. There are of course exceptions to this, but for me Puccini is very much a ‘uomo di teatro’, a real theatre composer.
You say that everything is interwoven. Are you thinking of the use of motifs?
Yes, in this score Puccini uses ‘reminiscences’, but I would not describe them as actual leitmotivs. They are more ‘sound memories’ which recall without recourse to words what happened when we first heard a particular melody. This, too, is invariably dictated by the drama.
What sort of characters does Puccini create in Manon Lescaut?
The characters in Manon Lescaut are complex and anything but monochromatic – and that of course applies first and foremost to Manon: young girl, adult woman, loyal sister, lover intent on overcoming obstacles or resigned mistress – who is Manon really? I talked about this with the director, who sees this opera as a ‘journey of discovery’, a quest for identity. The character of Lescaut is also more complex than he at first appears. What does Lescaut want for Manon, and for himself? Of course first and foremost he wants money and success, but there is more to it than that. Manon Lescaut is new to me personally as well. During the rehearsals with the singers, and particularly with Eva-Maria Westbroek, we will decide which aspects of the characters we want to emphasize. Every singer is different and it would be silly for a conductor not to do something with that.
What do you plan to tell the singers and the orchestra at the start of rehearsals?
I spend the first few musical rehearsals with the singers listening to the way they sing. Then at a certain point I will try and communicate my reading of the score and where I want to lay the emphases. I want to take the same approach with the orchestra and start from the ‘material’ we have. Every orchestra is different: they may have a vibrant sound or a dark sound. I know the La Monnaie orchestra quite well now and I know that it is very flexible, which is essential for Manon Lescaut because the atmosphere changes so quickly. The four acts are very different from each other and intimate moments give way to a certain ‘show quality’. Take, for example, the impressive beginning of the opera! I see the rehearsals not as a ‘technical’ process, but as bringing together different forces with everyone contributing his own personality and – hopefully – at the end of the journey everyone looking in the same direction. The conductor has the important role of ensuring this actually happens!
Recorded by Marie Mergeay