Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber (1782-1871), the most amiable French composer of the 19th century, came to his abilities late in life. After a stalled commercial career, he studied with Cherubini. His first works were not a success, but "La Bergere ...
Chateleine" (1820), written at the age of 38, established him as an operatic composer. He then met the librettist "Eugene Scribe" (1791-1861), with whom he developed a working partnership, one of the most successful in musical history, that lasted until Scribe's death. After "Le Macon" (1825) and "La Muette de Portici" (1828), Auber's life was filled with success. In 1829 he was appointed a member of the Institut, in 1839 Director of Concerts at Court, in 1842 Director of the Conservatoire, in 1852 Musical Director of the Imperial Chapel, and in 1861 Grand Officer of the Legion d'Honneur. Auber's famous historical grand opera "La Muette de Portici" (also known by its hero's name as "Masaniello") is a key work in operatic history, and helped to inspire the 1830 revolution in Brussels that led to the separation of Belgium from Holland. Auber himself experienced four French Revolutions (1789, 1830, 1848, 1870). The latter ("The Commune") hastened the end of his life. He died on 12 May 1871, at the advanced old age of 89, and in the pitiful conditions of civil strife, after a long and painful illness which worsened during the Siege of Paris. He had refused to leave the city he had always loved despite the dangers and privation, even after his house had been set on fire by the petroleurs et petroleuses. By some irony a mark had been placed against the house of the composer of Masaniello, the very voice of Romantic liberty! Auber's overtures were once known everywhere, a staple of the light Classical repertoire. The influence of his gracious melodies and dance rhythms on piano and instrumental music, and on the genre of Romantic comic opera, especially in Germany, was overwhelming. The operas themselves, apart from "Fra Diavolo" (1830), have virtually passed out of the repertoire, since Auber's elegant and restrained art now has little appeal for the world of music, attuned as it is to the meatier substance of verismo, high Wagnerian ideology, and twentieth-century experimentalism. "Manon Lescaut", an opera-comique in three acts with libretto by Eugene Scribe, was premiered at the Opera-Comique ('Deuxieme Salle Favart') on 23 February 1856. The plot is derived from the novella "Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut" (1731) by Abbe Antoine-Francois Prevost d'Exiles. Scribe followed his usual practice in arranging novels for the stage, retaining the names of characters, the central incidents of the plot, and effective moments which are used as coups de theatre. He adapted the novel freely, cutting down the role of Des Grieux, reducing Manon's various adventures to a single one involving the Marquis d'Herigny, and inventing new characters and relationships. But he remained true to the novel, emphasizing to the same degree Manon's unwavering devotion to Des Grieux, her search for pleasure and dependence on luxury. Auber, who was 74 when he wrote the score, worked with undiminished energy. The ravishing overture immediately captures the pathos of Manon and her story - the fateful relationship with the Marquis, the giddy verve and gaiety of her world of opportunism and pleasure. The dark side of the story is also reflected, and suggests that friendship and devotion remain the only enduring values. There is an abrupt generic shift in Act 3 from the elegant world of opera-comique to the more lyrically charged drame-lyrique, increasingly typical of Auber's late style. Indeed, the last scene, devoted to the death of Manon and the despair of Des Grieux, is a unique passage in Auber's operas, and provided the composer with the opportunity of writing a type of dramatic symphony, powerfully expressive in its simple grandeur and real emotion. The cast included the famous virtuoso soprano Marie-Josephe Cabel (Manon), the tenor Jules Puget (Des Grieux) and the legendary baritone Jean-Baptist Faure (Le marquis d'Herigny). Despite a positive reaction to the premiere, the opera did not survive in the Parisian repertoire beyond 63 performances, but there was resurgence of interest in this work in the late 20th century. This edition reproduces the vocal score published in Paris by Maison Boieldieu (1856).