Manon between the Worlds – Interview on "Manon"
Jan Schmidt-Garre in conversation with Serge Honegger about his production of Massenet’s opera
To tell the story of Manon, you reinterpreted the opera’s plot somewhat. How did that come about?
In preparing the opera, some questions arose in my mind about Manon’s character in the second act. At this point in the opera, Manon leaves Des Grieux, with whom she had just fallen so madly in love, which the music clearly expresses. And yet all it takes is for a rich gentleman to come along, promising her money and fame, and she leaves the love of her life. As a story, this would only be interesting to me from the perspective of Des Grieux, who falls fatally in love with a flighty woman and breaks down because of her superficiality. But that is not how Des Grieux is drawn, because he is rather one-dimensional compared to Manon.
Where do you see the starting points of your narrative perspective?
I noticed that Manon speaks a very differentiated language on the musical level. She can have a highly emotional interaction with Des Grieux, but she also has the language of Parisian society with quotations, coloratura and ironic turns of phrase. This indicates that she is not the naive girl she imagines herself to be at the beginning of the opera. Nor would a 16-year-old be concerned with the subjects Manon speaks of in her great arias: » Youth is fleeting, think not of tomorrow, seize the day... « In this production, she is not an innocent girl to be sent to a convent for some obscure reason, but is already from the beginning in Parisian society, which deals ironically with each other and speaks in different tongues.
An environment in which cynicism and a certain emptiness prevail. How does Manon deal with this?
Manon feels aversion to this ambiguous company, in which a word never means what it means. She longs for another life. And this other life meets her with Des Grieux. At first I thought the formula for Manon might be, » Manon wants to be young. « But then I realized that this longing for youth does not fit the nature of her character. Rather, Manon wants to be innocent because she wants to live with direct, unvarnished, and unconcealed emotions. So her formula became, » Manon wants to be innocent. «
Does she find this alternative way of life in the baroque theater to which she escapes with Des Grieux?
The baroque theater is an illustration of another reality. Manon lives in the time when the opera was written, that is, at the end of the 19th century. And there she suddenly encounters a stage character who has come to life: a cavalier from the Baroque period, from the time when Prévost’s novel, on which the opera is based, was written: Early 18th century. I am concerned with the contrast between two worlds, which becomes very clear in the production when Manon and Des Grieux meet in their first love duet. Manon only gradually comes to trust this other reality. She enters the baroque theater, the world of this seductive stranger who is so different from her acquaintances, leaves it again because she becomes afraid of her own courage, and ultimately decides to flee with Des Grieux.
What is she afraid of?
She’s afraid of leaving her previous life completely behind, but it also has to do with Des Grieux’s character. From the very beginning, he appears extremely impulsive. He is capable of very great feelings of love, but he can also explode at any moment, which is why Manon wonders if she can really trust this unpredictable man with her life. This doubt is an important reason why she leaves him again in the second act. And she has to fight it down when she returns to Des Grieux later.
Do you see parallels to our time in Massenet’s opera?
What I find particularly interesting about this composer is that he is a metropolitan, who really writes metropolitan music. There are very few composers about whom you can say that, certainly Mozart – and then you get to people like George Gershwin or Kurt Weill. Verdi, Tchaikovsky or Beethoven, not to mention Bruckner, do not write metropolitan. And it is exactly this quality of Massenet that suits our time, when people blush when they express direct emotions. Everything always has to be camouflaged, and in all statements there are quotation marks in front of and behind it, so that the content can be conveyed. I also recognize this behavior in Manon’s friends.
You have always dealt with opera and music in your films. How do you experience working as an opera director? Has it changed your perception of this art form?
In film, you make little building blocks that you work with in the editing room. How these building blocks are created is ultimately irrelevant. What’s fascinating to me about theater is this chance to work for the moment. I can tell the singers a lot, but they have to produce it later in the present moment on stage, and then I no longer have any influence on it. I can’t sit down in the editing room afterwards and take something away here and add something here. An opera performance succeeds in the moment and disappears just as quickly. But in a way, it has a much greater chance of eternity than film art, which is supposedly created for eternity.
In the subtitle of your film about the conductor Celibidache, you quote his sentence: »You don’t want anything, you let it evolve. « Does that also apply to your way of working?
I always try to develop something from the given material. Forcing something on a film or an opera that is not latent in the given material goes wrong. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t approach the work with certain ideas. So: I don’t want anything, but exactly that!
For your production, you studied Massenet’s score intensively. How do you encounter his music?
It haunts me a lot, without being tacky, like Richard Strauss sometimes or Mahler or Prokofiev. The way Massenet creates mood changes and atmospheric shifts with a light hand is very impressive. I would be interested to know how the educated public at the time reacted to the operas, to all the quotations and allusions, which are very deliberately placed. Massenet not only imitated baroque music, but there are motifs from Mozart’s Don Giovanni or Verdi’s Traviata. In the Saint-Sulpice scene, the Tristan chord suddenly appears, with the appropriate resolution, and the Comte’s appearance in Act IV is reminiscent of King Marke. Except that he takes 40 seconds for his monologue instead of 20 minutes! And yet it is not a patchwork. Massenet manages to bring the opera into a completely cohesive form.