Manon Lescaut, a courtesan of quality

The Seattle Opera opens its 2005 season this weekend - Saturday, Jan. 15 - with "Manon Lescaut,"

In 1731, the French Abbé Pré-vost wrote a short nov-el, "The Adventures of the Chevalier des Grieux and of Manon Lescaut," as part of his larger work, "The Memoirs of a Man of Quality." The novel, soon known simply as "Manon Lescaut," was a huge success.

A scandalous tale written by a libertine, the book's account of numerous love affairs and wanderings make it a highly autobiographical work. The Regency of Louis XV was a period of widespread cynicism, gambling and speculation. Attempts were made to offer land and dowries to immigrants who would settle the Louisiana Territory, then part of France; when these failed to draw many families, felons and prostitutes were forced into exile there - a practice that lasted only a few years. One of the women sent out to the Territory was Marie-Madeline Chavogny, who was called Manon.

L'Abbé Prévost's story captures many of the qualities of life in Paris following the death of Louis IV in 1715. The stuffy Baroque court was transformed by the more frivolous Rococo style of living, which naturally was reflected in the art, literature and music of the day. But freedom from the old formalism turned into debauchery. Prévost's story is ingeniously ambiguous, and the multitude of approaches to the character of Manon and what she represents have inspired artistic creations for more than 200 years.

Both composers Massenet in 1884 and Puccini in 1893 wrote operas on this theme. It is the 1884 Massenet and Puccini's 1893 setting of the story that are most familiar to opera audiences. Although much of the material is similar, there are striking differences that make each work dis-tinctive in its approach to the charac-ter of Manon. The Seattle Opera is presenting the Puccini version.

The story: Manon Lescaut, a beautiful young girl accompanied by her brother, is on her way to a convent at the bidding of their father. They and a fellow traveler, a rich old Parisian aristocrat, Geronte di Ravoir, arrive at a coaching inn, where Manon meets Des Grieux, a handsome, penniless student. It's love at first sight, and Manon runs off with Des Grieux to a life of love and poverty.

Then her brother persuades her to exchange her life of poverty for a life of luxury by becoming di Ravoir's mistress and living in his elegant Paris mansion with the side benefits of an opulent wardrobe, fabulous jewelry, hairdressers and entertainers. Eventually Des Grieux, her true love, shows up and convinces her to come back to him. Bored with her loveless life of luxe, Manon decides to return to him - but not before collecting her jewels. The delay causes her to be caught by di Revoir, who calls the police and accuses her of theft. She is tried, convicted and deported to Louisiana. Des Grieux convinces the seat captain to let him travel with Manon.

The last act finds the lovers on a plain in the southern United States. After landing in Louisiana, Des Grieux has once again fought for Manon's honor, killing the nephew of the governor of Louisiana in a duel. The lovers have escaped to the desert. Manon is completely exhausted and sends Des Grieux for water. When he returns without water, she dies in his arms, cursing her beauty and confirming that he was the only one she ever loved - all beautifully sung, a moving finale to opera in the grand manner.

Set in 18th-century France and America, the production features lavish period costumes and sets by designers Michel Beaulac and Bernard Uzan, from L'Opéra de Montréal. The trouble should be worth it. Puccini's gloriously tuneful yet very challenging opera has not been presented in Seattle since 1981 because it demands two great leads and, to quote Speight Jenkins, "We now have them in both casts."

Carol Vaness, the glamorous American soprano, plays Manon, and we are looking forward to seeing her after her great success in "Tosca" and several other Seattle performances. Jay Hunter Morris, who last sang Pinkerton here in "Madame Butterfly," plays de Grieux. Arthur Woodley plays di Ravoir. With the 63-member orchestra conducted by Antonello Allemandi and a chorus of 56, it promises to be another smash hit for the Seattle Opera. Again to quote Speight Jenkins: "It's going to be a great show - don't miss it."

There are eight performances: Jan. 15, 16, 19, 21, 22, 26, 28 and 29. For ticket information, call 389-7676. Treat yourself to a wonderful opera experience for 2005. There are still some tickets available. Enjoy.


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