Choruses and Commentary
In Manon Lescaut, Puccini uses choruses as far more than musical decor or scenic texture. Each chorus has its own personality and purpose. Take the chorus of students, friends of des Grieux, who congregate near the inn by the town gate of Amiens. As the opera opens, their purpose is to get things off in the proper spirit, light and breezy. ey tease the principals, as in Track 30: Edmondo begins the opera with a stereotypical song of gentle breezes, poets and lovers, but the chorus interrupts to laugh and add “E ai ladri ed ai brïachi!”—thieves and drunks too!
In Track 31, Puccini uses the same chorus to distract Manon’s brother, Lescaut, with gambling and drinking. The chorus keeps Lescaut busy and ignorant of both Geronte’s plot and des Grieux’s “rescue” until after the fact. In the first part of this selection, we hear the chorus luring Lescaut to the game—and Lescaut taking the bait. But the last voice we hear is Geronte, safely out of Lescaut’s earshot, arranging to abduct Manon.
In Act II, the chorus of fawning attendants in Geronte’s house shows us just how smitten their master is with Manon. They also provide Manon the opportunity to demonstrate how little Geronte’s attentions affect her. Take Track 32: The chorus flatters Manon, Geronte takes their every word as truth, and Manon complains about the whole affair. All three parties sing at once—a technique Puccini uses to indicate contradictory viewpoints that ignore one another.
Puccini puts the chorus to especially dramatic use in Act III. A chorus of citizens of Le Havre, sometimes split internally into multiple quarreling voices, carries on a ribald running commentary on the women being exiled to America (despite having been ordered to be silent!). As in Track 32, the chorus—or choruses—sing in counterpoint here—while a sergeant calls the roll of prisoners, Lescaut tells the crowd a heavily edited version of Manon’s life story, and Manon and des Grieux sing a duet. The many voices in Track 33 unite in a magnifi cent skein of song. At the same time, they represent an elaborate, ingenious method of simultaneously advancing and commenting on the plot and characters of the opera.