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Le canard de la semaine

La Cieca would like to introduce a new feature debunking a popular misconception about some aspect of opera. To kick of the series, let us take into consideration Manon Lescaut’s expedition into the “desert” of Louisiana.

“Oh, ha, ha, there is no better example of the absurdity of opera than to think the poor silly tart should die of dehydration in this mysterious sandy wasteland unknown to cartographers of the Bayou State, serves her right for not knowing there aren’t any deserts in Louisiana, and but who cares with all those lovely Puccini tunes,” your average full-of-himself queen will titter at one point or another, though probably not in quite so prolix a fashion.

Look, La Cieca was born in Louisiana and  lived some years in New Orleans, so she knows the terrain reasonably well. There is plenty of undeveloped land not too far from New Orleans even now, and in the 1730s you probably could get lost in the countryside as little as an hour’s walk from the French Quarter.

The scene description in the libretto of Manon Lescaut says “Una landa sterminata sui confini del territorio della Nuova Orléans. Terreno brullo ed ondulato; orizzonte vastissimo; cielo annuvolato.” That is, a bleak, uneven landscape: to an Italian, that might mean an actual desert, or it might just as well mean a prairie or a steppe.

In fact, only Manon actually calls the place “deserto,” and even she in her delirium has enough sense to realize that she is not hallucinating Monument Valley but rather poetically describing a desolate or barren place.

And that is consistent with the source material. According to Prévost’s novel, Manon and Des Grieux have not long after their arrival in New Orleans run in to yet more trouble, so they decide to leave town, hoping for for shelter among “des Anglais qui ont, comme nous, des établissements dans cette partie du Nouveau Monde.” So they are off to… Georgia, perhaps, or the Carolinas, but at any rate east.

They don’t get far, though:

Nous marchâmes aussi longtemps que le courage de Manon put la soutenir, c’est-à-dire environ deux lieues, car cette amante incomparable refusa constamment de s’arrêter plus tôt. Accablée enfin de lassitude, elle me confessa qu’il lui était impossible d’avancer davantage. Il était déjà nuit. Nous nous assîmes au milieu d’une vaste plaine, sans avoir pu trouver un arbre pour nous mettre à couvert.

A “lieue” was about two miles, so Manon and Des Grieux might have covered four miles by nightfall. Now, four miles east of the French Quarter in those days would have landed you in the middle of nowhere, say around where the Lower Ninth Ward or Gentilly are today. It’s not farm land, so nobody would be living there back then, and even the heart-rending absence of “un arbre pour nous mettre à couvert” so near the Mississippi River we may chalk up to the fact that the author’s description is meant to be poetic, not strictly littoral.

So Leoncavallo, Praga, Giacosa, Oliva and Illica and Ricordi weren’t so silly after all: at least, unlike Meilhac and Gille, they killed off the heroine on the proper continent!


  • 21
    La Valkyrietta says:

  • 22
    Camille says:

    Monsieur Camille has related to me his very fav’rite canard:
    Duck tacos, preferably served in a kind of a mole sauce, and as he had some just last week he has not yet stopped quacking about them!

    You know, wasn’t it the case that when Waltraute warned Brünnhilde about the ring she said that all would go aright if sister would please just cast off that big old gob of gold into the Rhine? What about the facr that the ring is supposed to protect its owner? Brünnhilde gets hog-tied by Siegfried and carted off to the marriage meat market. Why doesn’t the ring work its magical charm for her? Or what did the Norns say again? Did they not foresee everything going to hell in a handbasket…?

    Probably I have slept through some of it and that is why I do not understand what has transpired. Poor Brünnhilde: just for pitying some humans, what a lousy deal she gets handed.

    Oh well, never mind!

    • 22.1
      Chrysothemis says:

      Think of the ring as a huge fortune. It can buy you world domination, all kinds of security, even your own army. But when you’re facing an enemy alone, one on one, it’s completely useless. Alberich makes the same mistake in Rheingold.

    • 22.2
      La Valkyrietta says:


      Yes, how come Siegfried can take the ring from Brünhilde? Well, pourquoi pas? There is the whole Ring to make sense of the event, if any story has sense. I don’t think you slept through parts of Götterdämmerung, but maybe you missed Das Rheingold? There Wotan takes the ring from Alberich, against Alberich’s will, and then Alberich curses the ring. The ring changes hands many times and brings misfortune; Fafner kills Fasolt, for example. There is a book on Wagner, Joachim Köhler’s “Richard Wagner, The Last of the Titans” that nicely deals with the scene that worries you in several paragraphs. The situation of Brünhilde at the end of this scene is even more horrible than that of Blanche DuBois. I just can’t write an essay about it as I am out of Scotch. I think perhaps the problem is that you are giving the ring a quality such as omnipotence, that the libretto does not give it in any part of the tetralogie.

    • 22.3
      LittleMasterMiles says:

      My take on it: the Ring only works for men, as the Rhinemaidens imply:

      Der Welt Erbe
      gewänne zu eigen,
      wer aus dem Rheingold
      schüfe den Ring,
      der masslose Macht ihm verlieh’.

      This is partly the built-in bias of languages with gender-specific pronouns, but it’s pretty clear that only men can (or would want to?) wield the Ring’s power.

      • 22.3.1
        derschatzgabber says:

        In scene 2 of Rheingold, Fricka asks Loge if the Ring would make an appropriate ornament for a woman. Loge tells her that the woman who wears the Ring would be assured of her husband’s fidelity. Fricka then encourages Wotan to obtain the Ring.

        Well, it doesn’t work that way for Brunhilde.

        One theory I have heard (and I’m not sure I buy it, but I’ll put it out for discussion), is that Siegfried’s transfer of the Ring to Brunhilde in the prologue to Gotterdammerung is the first voluntary transfer of the Ring in the Ring Cycle. Up until then, it is always taken by force. According to this line of thought, Siegfried remains the true owner of the Ring and it can’t be used against him.

    • 22.4
      manou says:

      Monsieur Camille -- mole sauce? Really?

    • 22.5
      derschatzgabber says:

      Hi Camille, while Waltraute thinks that everything would go right if Brunhilde gave the Ring back to the Rhine, I think Waltraute is misinterpreting her father. Waltraute tells Brunhilde that Wotan murmured that if Brunhilde gave the Ring back to the Rhine daughters. “von des Fluches last, erlost war Gott und Welt [from the weight of the curse would the gods and the world be redeemed].” In Wagner, redemption doesn’t mean everything is physically all right. The Dutchman and Senta are redeemed at the end of their opera, but they are dead. Tanhauser is redeemed just as he dies. Kundry is redeemed in Parsifal, but also dies (at least in traditional productions).

      I think if Waltraute had come home and said, “guess what Dad, Brunhilde gave the Ring back to the Rhine daughters,” Wotan would have proceeded to set fire to Walhalla. Wotan needs to know that Brunhilde has corrected his big sin against the natural order so that he can die in peace. The Norns ask when Wotan will light the logs around Walhalla in the prologue and Brunhilde answers the question in the immolation scene.