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Puccini's Material Girl: 'Manon Lescaut'

What do Jules Massenet, Madonna, Giacomo Puccini and Cyndi Lauper all have in common? As it happens, they all came up with music portraying women who know exactly what they want, and who aren't shy about admitting it.

Cyndi Lauper had a hit in 1983 with "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." Madonna expressed a similar sentiment two years later in "Material Girl" — which includes the unabashed lyric, "'cause the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right."

As for Puccini and Massenet, they both wrote operas about a fictional material girl named Manon Lescaut. She had similar requirements for Mr. Right, and she also had a whole lot of fun — at least for a while.

Actually, it was a fellow named Antoine-Francois Prevost d'Exile, more commonly known as the Abbe Prevost, who got it all started. In the 1700s, he wrote a sensational, multi-volume series of novels. The last of them was Manon Lescaut — the story of a willfull young woman torn between true love and a life of luxury. The book did so well that Massenet, Puccini and a third composer, Daniel Auber, all set it to music.

Auber's version appeared first, in 1856, and has all but disappeared. Massenet's take on the story appeared in 1884, and Puccini followed in 1893. Both works were smash hits pretty much right from the start, and have stayed in the repertory ever since. Still, the two are very different operas. Puccini put it this way: "Massenet feels the subject as a Frenchman, with the powder and the minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion."

In Puccini's Manon Lescaut, as in many of his operas, the female lead comes to a bad end. Back in the Abbe Prevost's day, and in Puccini's, as well, people might well have thought that Manon got exactly what she deserved. After all, she did take up with two different guys, getting just what she wanted from each of them, but without committing to a "respectable" relationship with either one. In fact, both men wanted exclusive relationships, and she told them to forget it. In the opera — and the novel — society punishes Manon for her brazen behavior. She's arrested for theft and prostitution, imprisoned and then exiled.

Today's audiences may not be quite so quick to dismiss Manon as a woman of loose morals. In fact, she could easily be seen as a sort of forward-thinking, iron-willed heroine — a woman who knew what she wanted and simply set about getting it. So, who was Manon: feminist, or floozy?

On World of Opera, you can decide for yourself as host Lisa Simeone brings us Puccini's Manon Lescaut in a production from Houston Grand Opera, starring soprano Karita Mattila as Manon and tenor Vladimir Galouzine as Des Grieux.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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