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The Stories Of The Operas

PORTRAIT OF MANON: Jules Massenet used several musical motifs from his previous opera Manon in this new work, and they can be heard right from the prelude. As the action begins, we meet the Chevalier Des Grieux, who's now 50. It's been 20 years since Manon's death.

He is sitting alone in the parlor of a chateau; the house had been given to him in his father's will. Des Grieux lives a simple life, but a comfortable one. He has taken charge of the education of his 18-year-old nephew, Jean. Sadly, Des Grieux reminisces about his love affair with Manon and how badly it all ended.. He's still obsessed with her and is reminded of her daily, even keeping a tiny portrait of Manon hidden in his desk.

When Des Grieux learns that Jean is in love with Aurore, a 16-year-old country girl and the stepdaughter of an old friend, he forbids the match. The girl, he explains to his nephew, has no money or position. She's an orphan, a nobody. Jean would end up destroying himself, Des Grieux says, just as he himself was destroyed when he was young by exactly the same sort of love.

One can imagine how this goes over with Jean. And with Aurore. When Jean tells her that Des Grieux has forbidden the marriage, the two briefly consider suicide. Then, caught up in passion, they playfully chase each other around the room and accidentally unlock the compartment of the desk where Des Grieux keeps the portrait of Manon.

Tiburge, Aurore's stepfather, arrives just in time to see the portrait. He sympathizes with the young couple and comes up with a plan. He tells Aurore to dress up like Manon in the portrait.

That evening, she walks into the room where Des Grieux is sitting. She stands in a beam of moonlight coming through the window, reminding Des Grieux of the moment when he first saw Manon so many years ago. But there's something more — an eerie resemblance. Finally, Tiburge reveals his stepdaughter's true identity — she is Manon's niece, an orphan he adopted long ago. Des Grieux relents, giving the young couple his blessing, and the opera ends.

LA VOIX HUMAINE: The single character in Poulenc's one-act opera is a young woman who is never named. Poulenc and Jean Cocteau, the author of the text, called her simply, "Elle."

We hear only her end of a telephone conversation with her former lover. Cries of desperation are punctuated with soft recollections of their life together.

There's also an element of black humor in this extended monologue, as Elle ends up talking at times to phone operators, who interrupt her conversation. The opera was written in 1958, at a time when party lines existed, so Elle shares her phone line with somebody else. That's why she sometimes needs the assistance of operators. So the sadness of lost love is often interrupted by the staccato of rings and re-dialings. Plus, her lover periodically hangs up on her in anger — or exhaustion — prompting one or the other ex-lover to call back.

Though Elle insists she's coping well, we soon learn that she has already tried suicide. All in all, it's not a pretty picture. Finally, with the connection severed one last time, Elle wraps the telephone cord around her neck and curls up in bed, murmuring "Je t'aime" into the receiver.

Poulenc was well acquainted with this kind of desperation and said this opera was more or less autobiographical. He struggled with lifelong anxiety, drug abuse and thoughts of suicide. He called La Voix Humaine "a musical confession."

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