‘Oh joy! Oh rapture!’ Translating Puccini in the run-up to Manon Lescaut

Posted on Mon, 2014-02-03 10:49 by Opera Explorer

This week at WNO I have been entrenched in a dark room at the back of the stalls at Wales Millennium Centre, working on the translation of Puccini’s opera Manon Lescaut while the ‘Stage and Orchestra’ rehearsals unfold.  This is when the hard work of the last few weeks in the rehearsal room is transferred onto the stage with the orchestra; the singers and chorus perform in costume for the first time; and the lighting is focused around them, completely transforming the aesthetic of the staging.  It’s fascinating seeing the opera take shape on the huge stage of the WMC, and the atmosphere is one of constant activity.  I suspect that the director, stage managers, costume designers and assistant directors must have run the equivalent of several miles in hasty journeys to and from the stage, as they work to refine the action and give notes to the singers.  All the while, large sections of the opera are rehearsed, and, although I have the pleasure of being serenaded by the sensational voices of Chiara Taigi (playing Manon Lescaut) and Gwyn Hughes Jones (Des Grieux) to name the two leading roles, I have to keep a close eye on the staging: it is my job to ensure that the translation choices I have made do not jar with the dramatic choices of the director.
There is also an element of updating in the choice of language, so as to avoid using archaic words as far as possible.  Although the music of Manon Lescaut is incredibly moving and heartfelt, its 19th-century text presents many challenges, with countless exclamations to heaven, various outdated curses and multiple florid declarations of love which, if translated too closely to the original, can become laughable, insincere, or overly flowery – as Gilbert and Sullivan satirised wonderfully in ‘Oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen!’ from their operetta H.M.S. Pinafore.

One the opera’s most famous arias, ‘Donna non vidi mai’, poses challenges of exactly this nature.

As Pavarotti says at the start of this concert performance, the first line of the aria translates from the original Italian into ‘I have never seen a lady like that’. When read in either language, this opening phrase can sound clichéd, but somehow the English translation brings its banality cringingly to light. Yet as you listen to the soaring melody and yearning string writing over which the words are stretched, here brought to life by that incredibly distinctive voice, it becomes clear that the commonplace text of the libretto has morphed into something else entirely. In these three minutes of archetypal Italian romantic opera, Puccini has set himself the challenge of distilling the intoxicating revelation of the coup de foudre, and he does a masterful job.

But let us consider what has happened at this point in the opera. When we hear the first chords of 'Donna non vidi mai', the heroine, Manon, has just left Des Grieux alone, and he is now reeling from the intense feelings their meeting has provoked. Des Grieux and Manon have only just met.  As is typical of Puccini’s operas, the couple barely know each other before they launch into what he does best: an ecstatic love duet.  They are allowed to exchange the usual pleasantries: a poetic Des Grieux asks ‘Tell me your name with your sweet lips,’ and she replies, ‘Manon Lescaut mi chiama’ ( unsurprisingly, ‘I am called Manon Lescaut’); a phrase whose downward cadence is like a sigh that then echoes through Des Grieux’s mind and this aria: he sings a direct quotation of it.  In fact, the miraculous effect of these four words culminates in the yearning exhortation, ‘Gentle whisper, please don’t stop!’, with which the aria finishes.
If it seems odd to burst into passionate song about a woman you barely know, Mariusz Treliński’s production turns this apparent deficit at the heart of the piece to an advantage. For a detailed account of Mariusz’s approach to the heroine, read this excellent interview, but essentially, the Manon we see is fundamentally a projection of the fantasies of the men around her. WNO Chief Executive & Artistic Director, David Pountney writes:

‘Her first appearance is seen through a frame as if she is an idealised vision conjured up by his erotic and amorous dream of a woman. Throughout the piece, Des Grieux, obsessed and naïve by turns, will never actually understand Manon’s true character because, as Treliński astutely insinuates in his production, he is always looking over her head at the woman he imagines to exist rather than the one that actually does. The sinister lecher, Geronte, by contrast, explicitly hires Manon to act out his fantasies, which are certainly not naïve. The real Manon, capricious, wilfull, unstable and manipulative flits between these two extremes without ever finding her own standpoint, which is perhaps hardly surprising. She is an extremely young woman being exploited by the obsessive fantasies of the men around her.’
The simplicity of the text creates characters who, without the music, would be extremely two-dimensional, and the dramaturgy of Manon Lescaut is far from flawless. For example, Act Four takes place in the desert near New Orleans. The fact that there is no such desert was irrelevant for Puccini, presumably because its real ostensible purpose is to provide the cause of the heroine’s demise and thereby the piece’s moralising lesson: the fallen woman must be punished for her sins! (For more on this subject, see David Pountney’s blog)

However, Mariusz’s production probes deep into the symbolism of the ‘desert’ setting, and once again turns what could be considered a naïve aspect of the story into a psychological commentary, as he explains in conversation with Steph Power. In this production, we are in an urban desert – a deserted transit station – and as David Pountney writes: ‘In this void Des Grieux and Manon are left alone, or rather, Des Griex is left alone with his fantasy. Manon’s death is not so much the tragic death of a person, but the poignant death of a dream.’
In any case, Lothar Koenigs, WNO’s Music Director and conductor of Manon Lescaut remarked to me that ‘The dramaturgy may be crazy – but the real soul of the opera is in the music.’ I certainly find this helpful to think of when doing the surtitles. However mundane the English may seem, it is the music, with its lush melodies, soaring motifs and sensual orchestration that makes the Italian words really take flight, no matter how plain they are.  Here’s the translation I’ve opted for – for the moment. In the meantime, enjoy Pavarotti’s rendition – oh what joy, what rapture!

Donna non vidi mai, simile a questa! | I have never seen a woman like this before!   
A dirle: ‘io t'amo,’ | To tell her ‘I love you’       
a nuova vita l'alma mia si desta. | awakens new life in my soul.   
‘Manon Lescaut  mi chiamo!’ | ‘My name is Manon Lescaut!’   
Come queste parole profumate, |  How those sweet words          
mi vagan nello spirto | wander through my mind           
e ascose fibre vanno a carezzare. | carressing every fibre of my being.   
O sussurro gentil, deh! non cessar! | Gentle whisper, please don't stop!