Dreaming up a perfect lover

Posted on Wed, 2014-02-19 15:23 by Opera Explorer

‘È questa l’ora delle fantasie che fra le spemi lottano e le malinconia’/‘This is the hour of fantasy, when hope and sorrow collide...’ These words, sung by a chorus of amorous students in the opening few minutes of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, aptly sum up the dream-like state of all great opera, where the text that individual characters sing resembles many different forms of ‘realistic’ dialogue, whether external or internal. From ordinary conversation (as in fast-paced recitatives, where we speed through plot details), crowd mentality (as in the quotation above, where collective feelings and intentions are declaimed by groups, often in mysterious synchronicity), to a soliloquising exploration of the individual’s internal world that takes place out of ordinary time (as in arias), the boundaries between these different types of operatic declamation are constantly dissolving into one another, creating an art form where time is in flux, and the action is perpetually hovering between reality and fantasia: fantasy, or the imagination. Given that opera storylines are constructed on this dramaturgical quicksand, it is perhaps not surprising that their characters frequently have dreams of their own, which then come to life on stage.

Two recent operas at WNO (Wagner’s Lohengrin and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut) have had episodes in which protagonists ‘dream up’ their perfect lover, who then magically makes an appearance on stage in the flesh soon after.

Near the start of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, the condemned Elsa describes a mysterious knight who came to her in her dreams, and who, she assures her doubting audience of courtiers, will come and rescue her.

The vision – perhaps presaged in Senta’s dream of a hero in Wagner’s earlier opera The Flying Dutchman - is depicted in virtuosic splendour by Wagner’s writing. In the opening minute of this spectacular aria, Elsa’s soaring description of her cry for aid echoes the surge of the original utterance, soon after which, we hear an echo of the ‘grail’ motif of the Prelude – the ethereal, shimmering violin writing that hovers like a halo around her depictions of her ‘dream’ knight.  Just minutes after Elsa’s triumphant description of her dream, it turns into miraculous reality: the chorus of courtiers clamour together in hushed wonder at the sudden apparition of Elsa’s rescuer on a boat drawn by a swan (if only modern men had such means of transportation!). Lohengrin, the knight in question, immediately betroths himself to Elsa, before defending her honour, and protecting the mythologised kingdom of Brabant.

What happens in Manon Lescaut, then, when Puccini creates an ideal woman in the mind’s eye of Des Grieux, a soon-to-be failed theologian? Shortly before the first appearance of the heroine, Des Grieux sings to a group of women, asking whether the woman “with whom I could fall in love forever” is hiding amongst them.  Although Des Grieux’s expression of yearning for a perfect lover doesn’t quite have the mystical depth of Elsa’s dream - with a corresponding downgrade in transportation for Manon, who merely travels by horse- (,not swan-) drawn coach - she appears so soon after Des Grieux’s serenade that her appearance is just as much a product of his fantasia as that of Elsa. (Perhaps the harp flourish and a fleeting second of ‘exoticised’ chromatic harmony at 0.52 could be musical signifiers of entering some sort of dream-space).

If we contrast these two conjured-up lovers, what do we get? Lohengrin - a divine innocent who elevates the entire society and those surround and love him; and Manon Lescaut – a tragic picture of lost innocence, around whose demise constellate a variety of corrupt individuals, and who is, at least in the Prévost novel, blamed for Des Grieux’s fall from grace. We could talk at length on the gender stereotyping at work here, but together they present a rather lovely image of a very mismatched couple: Lohengrin and Manon; a fantastic, and fantastical, Adam and Eve!

Yet it proves impossible for those who summoned these ‘dream’ figures to keep them within their grasp: they dissolve like sand through their fingers in one way or another. Elsa’s Lohengrin returns to his holy realm on his magical swan-boat; Senta’s cursed Dutchman goes back to sailing the seas; and Manon dies in Des Grieux’s arms in a barren wasteland. In the current production of Manon Lescaut at WNO, instead of seeing the death of a ‘real’ heroine, we see the image of the ‘dream woman’ fragmenting, as Des Grieux is tormented by doubles of his beloved Manon. As Bonnie Greer remarked so eloquently in the #WNOdebate with David Pountney, ‘In these operas, ... I don’t see real women, as I know them, on stage. I see mechanisms through which we can confront the demon: the fear of women. These operas are at the point of tension in society: [composers] pour out the conflict of culture into these shapes, these spectres.’ These operatic spectres are summoned again and again from the cracks in the cultural landscape – in the double standard towards Fallen Women in Manon Lescaut - and from the ever-dissolving boundary between fantasia and reality.

Sophie Rashbrook