Lying just outside the center of the repertory (a core dominated by Giacomo Puccini’s subsequent three operas, La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly), Manon Lescaut stakes its greatness on two foundations: its role in Puccini’s personal history, and its own unique treasures.

We cherish Puccini as the supreme love composer, but this opera contains his best actual love scene. Act I of La Bohème features an awareness of attraction. We don’t see Mimì and Rodolfo make love; they decide to get dinner first and negotiate love later. Tosca’s duet is also a contract to make love later. Butterfly is something else entirely: two people with opposing agendas. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini nailed one operatic idea better than any other composer before or since (including himself): two people simultaneously saying “You are so beautiful, I must have you right here, right now, no matter what.” This Act II love scene could only have been written by Puccini, and only at this age (he began writing it at 32). It doesn’t happen quite this way or this well in any other opera.

Think about it: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is so far-reaching that it goes beyond the physicality of the two lovers and into the cosmos, where it becomes a duet of philosophical speculation, encompassing vast philosophical speculation. The great conductor Arturo Toscanini, who had a close but fraught relationship with Puccini and who, like Puccini, revered Tristan, famously remarked “if those were Italians, they’d have had seven children by now. But they’re Germans, so they’re still talking about it.”

Manon Lescaut has no detour into philosophy or dinner; everything is right there on stage. And, as Toscanini suggested of Italian lovemaking, it creates something: the great composer Puccini himself. He discovered a certain mastery in that very scene (yes, there is top-quality opera in Act I and the beginning of Act II, but Puccini’s specific genius bursts forth with the duet). The wild success of Manon Lescaut’s opening night, at Turin’s Teatro Regio on February 1st, 1893, tells us the public had found a great new talent. Manon Lescaut catapulted Puccini to the top of the world’s opera composers (to the annoyance and envy of many others).

Few, however, foresaw a success on the morning of the premiere. To begin with, Puccini’s struggles with the libretto were known publicly. He had begun the process of adapting the novel, a profoundly influential work from 18th Century France by the Abbé Prévost, with his sometime friend and fellow rising composer, Ruggero Leoncavallo. That collaboration sputtered, and Puccini asked the dramatist Marco Praga to take over. Praga tried to beg off, citing his inexperience with music, but Puccini convinced him to proceed with the help of poet Domenico Oliva. They created a libretto, but Puccini wanted changes. He tossed out an entire scene and demanded a new one (the Act III finale). Praga and Oliva quit. Puccini’s publisher

Giulio Ricordi (a brilliant mind behind Verdi for decades) hired another author/poet team, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. These two, future collaborators on Puccini’s most successful works, were magical but not yet infallible. When Puccini needed more tweaks, he once again asked Leoncavallo for help. Ricordi himself contributed editorial suggestions and is often listed, along with the other five (and one more who contributed one line thirty years later), as librettist. Many scores list no librettists at all.

Other factors contributed to the unease prior to the opening. There was simply too much pressure to succeed; the House of Ricordi needed a huge hit in order to survive. They owned the rights to Verdi, but not even he (then in his 80th year) could go on forever. Verdi’s opera Falstaff would have its world premiere in nearby Milan a mere week later. But the question remained—who was the “heir apparent”? The obvious “successor to Verdi” seemed to be Puccini’s one-time roommate Pietro Mascagni, whose one-act thriller Cavalleria Rusticana caused a sensation at its 1891 Rome premiere. It was the result of a competition by a rival publisher, Sonzogno. Cavalleria seemed to represent a young generation: brash, short, written for the “new” national capital, Rome, rather than the old opera capital, Milan—in short, everything Verdi was not. Leoncavallo produced his own opera Pagliacci (1892), and these and others were hailed as a new style, verismo. Would this be the new direction of Italian opera?

Not all Italians thought so. Another composer, Alfredo Catalani, rejected scruffy verismo and composed romantic works in his own style. His opera La Wally premiered in Milan in 1892, championed by his devoted friend, Toscanini. Catalani died shortly after, embittered by the attention being shown other composers (particularly Puccini), and leaving Toscanini ruing what might have been.

Perhaps the future of opera would not be Italian at all. The French had their own notions: Carmen (1875) was finally recognized as a masterpiece. Jules Massenet’s Manon (1884), also based on Prévost’s novel, was an international hit positively trumpeting its utter “Frenchness.” The superb score made references to music from France’s glorious past (a gavotte as well as Rameau-esque ballet music) and reveled in the French language. Manon was nothing short of a declaration of French cultural supremacy. 

And other countries were enshrining their own cultures in opera. The Russian Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was a sort of claim of national independence from Italian domination, as was Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Composers from Bohemia, Brazil, and everywhere else were creating works that bypassed Italy altogether.

Imagine, then, how puzzled the public must have been at Puccini’s entry into the operatic sweepstakes. First, there was the folly of subject choice: Manon Lescaut! One couldn’t encapsulate Manon better than Massenet. Puccini relished the challenge as always—he later became excited about composing La Bohème and Tosca only after he learned other composers (Leoncavallo and Franchetti, respectively) were working on the same subjects. He famously said, “a woman like Manon can handle more than one lover.” He made another statement which is too often quoted uncritically, “Massenet felt it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion.”

There’s plenty of desperate passion in Massenet’s score, and there’s plenty of powder in Puccini’s (the Act II levée). And yet, as with Toscanini’s comment about Tristan, Puccini was onto something. He felt the story as an Italian in more ways than desperate passion. Or better yet, he felt the story as he felt Tristan (the operatic Epic of Love, in a sense, and therefore an archetype of Manon Lescaut). Puccini’s great love duet not only begins with a great rushing swirl in the orchestra, like Wagner’s, but it likewise builds to a climax with unresolved ascending phrases. It is Wagner’s “endless melody” but faster and more economical. The Italian desire for tangible results (cf. Toscanini’s comment) might refer to a certain impatience, especially in a young person. Interestingly, when Massenet’s heroine is dressed and coiffed and being admired by all Paris, she says “I am beautiful; I am happy.” In Puccini’s analogous moment (the Act II levée), she is bored.

Massenet had his heroine die on a French road. Puccini’s Manon (per the novel) dies in the “deserts of Louisiana” (and stop tittering … there were plenty of desert(ed) wastelands in the Louisiana Territory). The lifelessness of the landscape reminds some people of the supreme musical depiction of bleakness at the beginning of the last act of Tristan. I also detect another moment in Manon Lescaut as a Puccinian version of a Tristan trope: the Act III roll call of the prostitutes to be deported to the New World. This was Puccini’s own idea, and two of his librettists quit rather than write it. The scene’s build-up is superb, with individual voices merging with each other and the assembled chorus as seamlessly as streams into a river. The waves of music recall the love duet but are also a communal sob, a rolling lamentation about life and loss. The waves signify more than physical crying: the sea is in the background, with its rising and falling tides causing ships to sway. The personal has been projected onto nature and nature’s cycles, which both mark, and are outside of, time itself. If that isn’t Tristan, nothing is. But Puccini, unlike the German Wagner, simply never talked about it (nor did he write volumes of confrontational prose about it like Wagner). Like Toscanini’s definition of Italians in action, he let the work speak for itself and bear its own progeny. That progeny is not only Puccini’s first great opera, but a work that carves out its own unique place in the opera house and in our affection.