Invited by Octave to write a "literary escapade » inspired by Manon, Valérie Zenatti was about to offer us her short story after attending the dress rehearsal of the production on February 24. With libretto in pocket and notebook in hand, she set to work, bringing to life with her pen the scorching passion of Manon and Des Grieux. But little imagining the events to come and their consequences. On March 22, thousands of spectators should have gone to the Opéra Bastille to applaud singers and musicians.Instead, it is an empty square and a closed theatre that the author describes, as she explores suspended time and its upheavals.
Above the deserted Place de la Bastille, the screen of the Paris Opera displays the programme for the 2020-2021 season. Carmen, The Snow Maidenand, in a year, Aida. I hear Berenice murmur: What will our sufferings be in a day, in a year? I came across this phrase in adolescence reading a novel by Françoise Sagan who had reshaped it for her title. I no longer remember the plot, but Racine’s lines figured on the frontispiece and I noted them in my journal, sensing that this same incertitude would accompany me throughout my life, reminding me that, even if we do keep diaries and write down our dinner engagements, birthdays, a check-up at the opticians, a meeting with the plumber for some maintenance, outings, a CT scan to fix, a secret lunch, a work deadline, the repayments of a debt to plan, next month’s canteen to pay, we never know of what stuff our lives will be made, the future is a tenacious illusion capable of all kinds of transformations, farce, tragedy, disappointment or sublime surprise, nothing ever happens as we would wish, or as we fear, I will repeat to my children, in the hope of arming them in the face of what may arise, or never happen.
About two thousand seven hundred people had written in their diaries, beside March 22nd 2020: Manon.
Those who had saved up to treat themselves, or treat someone else: Close your eyes, hold out your hands, open them now, look.
Those who have been following Vincent Huguet ever since his work with Patrice Chéreau, and his first production of Lakmé and who would not miss one of his shows for the world. Those who know him or who have seen him in rehearsal, a youthful, smiling silhouette, a precise and respectful, almost tender look for every artisan in the production: That change of tableau was perfect, impeccable, thank you everyone, well done.
Those who saw Pretty Yende in The Barber of Seville in 2016 and wanted to see her again in the title role of Manon and those who loved Benjamin Bernheim in La Traviata or in the role of Des Grieux at Bordeaux Opera the previous year.
Families, lovers, students, the rich, the down at heel, the curious, the passionate, Parisians, provincials, children who would have been coming to the Paris Opera for the very first time, the grumpy, the ecstatic, the snobbish, the overwhelmed, friends of the musicians, singers, chorus, guests, those who would have had to cancel and ask a friend to sell their ticket, those who would have been delighted to have been passing that way. The optima and all categories from 1 to 9.
Those who would have closed their eyes, surrendering themselves to the arias they know by heart, those who would have followed every word of the libretto on the littlescreen above the stage or in the programme, those who would have held hands with the person next to them, those who would have held their breath, those who would have sat up very straight, those who would have plunged their hand more or less discreetly into a handbag to find a sweet, those who would have found the time too short, those who would have queued during the interval for a glass of champagne, the regulars who would have ordered theirs before the show and made straight for the counter along the bay windows where a glass and a sandwich would have been waiting for them beside a chic little grey card with their name on, those who would have got out a plastic bottle or a drinking gourd because that’s enough plastic, it’s criminal, you have to think of the earth and of the oceans, you know there’s an entire continent of plastic in the ocean? They’re calling it the seventh ocean, in fact it’s spreading in several different areas, but the biggest surface is to be found in the Pacific, between California and Hawaii, covering one million, six hundred thousand square kilometres, which is three time the surface area of France, just to give you an idea, yes, yes, I’ve read about it, fish, birds, turtles, which can mistake these particles for plankton, swallow them, which can cause serious damage to their digestive systems and can choke them.
They would all have been there. Would have brushed against each other in the corridors, on the stairs and would have queued for the toilets unsuspectingly, in close-knit Indian file. Would have hailed each other from afar, shaken hands, kissed: Oh, it’s been ages, how extraordinary to bump into each other here, what do you think of it, are you enjoying it?
Like on the evening of the dress rehearsal, February 24th2020.
On which Manon, waiting to be taken to the convent by her cousin, confides her impressions of the journey in the coach,
I saw the trees rushing by, trembling in the windand overwhelmed with joy
I forgot I was heading for the convent...
Faced with so many new things,please don't laugh...
I felt I had wings and was flying to paradise.
Then came a moment of sadness,
I cried, but I don't know why.
The next minute, I confess, I was laughing...
I was laughing, but without knowing why.
Inexplicable sadness, inexplicable joy, the state of adolescence for some – and Manon is only sixteen years old! – of an entire lifetime for others, the invisible contact with that part of self that converses with the world, with life and death, with everyvestige of creation or destruction but already Lescaut warns his cousin:
Look me straight in the eyes.
I am going to the barracks to discuss with these gentlemen
a matter that concerns them.
Wait for me just a few moments...
Don't budge, be good...
And don't forget that I am the guardian
of the family honour.
"Don't budge, be good..." the thousand-year-old injunction imposed on girls, and family honour as oddly as it is inexorably placed on their shoulders, in their backbones, their eyes, their mouths, their hips, their breasts. She is willing to submit, is Manon, to comply, to behave herself, so as not to be the one through whom the dirt will bespatter the family honour, but perched on a bench, her eyes shining with a desire as timid as it is violent,she watches the image of Josephine Baker emerge, with a crowd of admirers and photographers around her:
How pretty those women are!
The youngest was wearing
a necklace of gold beads.
Their elegant dresses and jewels
made them prettier still.
Come now, Manon, no more flights of fancy.
Where will all this dreaming lead you?
Leave these passing desires
at the convent door.
Come now, Manon.
No more longings, no more wild fancies...
How tempting it all seems...
What fun it must be to enjoy
Oneself a whole lifetime long!
Come now, Manon, no more flights of fancy.
Where will all this dreaming lead you?
Come now, Manon,
no more wild fancies...
Between her thirst for light and the prospect of reclusion, already Manon vacillates, opening herself up unknowingly to a possible encounter, the encounter which in the space of a second gives to a life another meaning –full, whole and unprecedented. The turning point, the bend in the road that diverts the trajectory, the encounter with a capital E and a thousand exclamation (ecstasy?) marks, celebrated by some, scoffed at by others, how many spectators on this evening of February 24thhave already felt the astonishment expressed in the words of Des Grieux?
Good Heavens! Is this a dream?
Is this madness?
Where does this feeling come from?
It's as if my life were ending...
or just beginning.
It's as if an iron hand
were leading me along another path
and drawing me towards her
in spite of myself...
(Little by little Des Grieux approaches Manon. Timid)
DES GRIEUX (moved)
Forgive me. I don't know...
I'm no longer my own master.
I'm sure this is the first time
I have seen you...
(tender and restrained)
...yet my heart feels as if you
were a long-lost acquaintance.
And I know your name...
My name is Manon.
There it is, the moment of rupture and of connecting, I recognise you without having known you, already I cherish your name which is only a first name and which, from now on, will be my reason for living, the name that will be love, betrayal, loss of meaning and refuge in faith all at once. The name that will unite love and hate. Three hours and fifty minutes of severe decors, brightly coloured twirling costumes, It's a holiday on the Cours-la-Reine.
We laugh and drink to the King.
Let's take full advantage of our youth.
Springtime, alas, is so short.
Let's love, sing and laugh without end.
We won't be twenty forever.
Happiness is so fleeting,and heaven has made it so delicatethat we fear it may fly away.
Carefreeness waltzes with guilt, seduction is offered up with the self-assurance of music hall dancers.
In Paris, in France, all over the world, and at the Opéra Bastille during the interval, people are commenting onthe day’s news. The first article of the pensions bill has been adopted at the National Assembly. Indeed, the topic invited itself to the beginning of the performance, a voice reminding us that the employees of the Paris Opera have not abandoned the strike, even if the production is going ahead that evening. There was applause and whistling, difficult to say whether the partisans or opponents of the strike carried the day amongst the audience. The stock markets are down by 4% on average. The fear of an economic crisis linked to the coronavirus is spreading. In Italy, the fifth death resulting from the illness was recorded over the weekend.
They ought to stop making such a fuss about it, flu kills a lot more people every year, says a voice near the bar. In the United States, Harvey Weinstein has been found guilty of sexual aggression and rape, but not repeated sexual aggression. A man and a woman argue about whether this is more of a victory or a setback for feminists, the bell rings, summoning the spectators to their seats: We’ll pursue this later, have you got time for a drink? Let’s go and see how he does Manon’s death.
And for the first time for the audience, after being shot, Manon expired in Des Grieux’s arms and a few seconds later Pretty Yende and Benjamin Bernheim appeared in front of the curtain to take their bows before the collective curtain calls. The two hundred and nine artistes and the thirty technicians involved in the show saw their weeks of work applauded and somewhere in the auditorium, Vincent Huguet must have smiled, relieved and perhaps proud, not yet knowing that the performances would be cancelled from March 8th onwards following a government decree forbidding all gatherings of more than a thousand people; that on March 10th, the production would be filmed in the absence of the public, to allow as many people as possible to watch Manon love, live beyond her wildest dreams, lose everything and die; that on March 22nd2020, Place de la Bastille would be deserted, the doors of the opera house closed, and on the stage where the blue curtain designed by Cy Twombly was perhaps lowered, only the silence of the sixth day of confinement would echo.
And the crowd of spectators, singers, dancers, musicians under Dan Ettinger musical direction and technicians, male and female, those whoknew each other and those who would not even have known that they were sharing the same space, the same story, at the same moment, those who should have been there, were scattered, plunged like two billion other human beings into their questionings, theirturmoil, their resourcefulness, their daily need to know that their loved ones were well, in the face of this uncertain life but
Is this no longer my hand pressing yours?
Is this no longer my voice?
Is it no more like a caress for you,
just as once before?
The past will soon be reborn.
By the grace of the performing art.