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Love Stinks: Massenet, Poulenc Double Bill

Even the most idealistic lovers often have to overcome a few hurdles — and sometimes, they don't succeed. From the idyllic surroundings of Glimmerglass Opera, in upstate New York (a perfect place for love to bloom), comes a pair of one-act operas about love gone wrong.

Jules Massenet's opera Manon was such a hit, neither he nor his audiences could get it out of their heads. So it's not surprising that, years later, Massenet returned to the story of the fallen woman to produce a sequel — the one-act Portrait of Manon.

The opera is based on a novel by the 18th century French author known as the Abbé Prévost. His story set many a reader's imagination on fire. It was the tale of a woman named Manon Lescaut. But the full title of Prévost's novel was The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut. In the book, Des Grieux is the central character, not Manon. She appears as a memory, as Des Grieux spins the story of his love for her and its tragic ending. Five different composers based operas on the novel, including, most famously, Massenet and Puccini. But both turned the original tale around, and made Manon the main character. So perhaps it was fitting that 10 years after his successful opera, Massenet picked up the story again and wrote a one-act sequel — this time focusing on an older and wiser Des Grieux. He gets swept up into the same emotions all over again. It seems he just can't let go.

Characters who can't let go of love are common in opera. Glimmerglass Opera has joined together a pair of problematic love affairs for a provocative double bill.

Following Massenet's Manon sequel, a nameless woman tries desperately to save her affair from a painful end in Francis Poulenc's one-act La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice).

Based on a 1932 play by Poulenc's friend Jean Cocteau, La Voix Humaine is a stark depiction of a woman overcome by desperation. We watch her crumble right before our eyes, in a 45-minute telephone conversation with her lover. Ex-lover, actually. And there's the source of the problem: She's been dumped.

One telephone, one voice, one singer on stage: in this case, Amy Burton, in a role that's a true tour de force.

In this edition of World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents two short operas about love gone bad by two French composers known for their exquisite writing for the human voice.

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

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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