In their time, his friends had tried to dissuade Giacomo Puccini from idea to write an opera about the tragedy of wayward beauty Manon Lescaut as the story of Abbé Prévost had have already inspired an opera by composer Julles Massenet. However, Puccini dismissed all objections.Manon is a heroine I believe in and therefore she cannot fail to win the hearts of the public. Why shouldn’t there be two operas about Manon? A woman like Manon can have more than one lover. He added, Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion.Manon Lescaut was his third opera and his first striking success.
The young clergyman des Grieux marries his friend, Edmondo, to a young woman hard of hearing. Among those celebrating the union is the art collector Geronte de Ravoir, the man who also paid for the wedding. The crowd toasts the feminine beauty. Then Manon, a friend of Edmondo’s new bride, and her brother, Lescaut, join the party. Manon’s arrival causes a general excitement in the other guests – especially in Geronte and des Grieux. Both men desire Manon: one wants to acquire her like a new sculpture to add to his collection, to admire her as a natural work of art – while the other wants her as an object of passion. Des Grieux is the first to approach Manon, who flirts, telling him of her plans to enter a convent, but des Grieux tries to dissuade her from this path. Geronte overhears their conversation, and his intrigue in Manon
grows stronger. Geronte begins to question Lescaut about his enchanting sister. The wealthy art collector’s interest in Manon does not go unnoticed by Edmondo’s wife, who grows jealous; Geronte is her benefactor, and she doesn’t want to share him with anyone. Edmondo’s wife informs her husband that Geronte has taken an interest in Manon, knowing that Edmondo will pass the information on to his friend. Des Grieux professes his love for Manon and asks her to come away with him. Tired of worrying over her careless brother and delighted by the passion des Grieux exudes, Manon accepts his invitation. Geronte is displeased, but Lescaut consoles him, assuring him that his sister won’t disappear forever. After some time, the comforts of financial stability will win over love.
Geronte’s manor-museum, which is filled with works of art that seem to be staring down at someone approaching – the statuesque Manon. She is trying to bring some life to the frozen beauty surrounding her. We learn from Lescaut that Manon spent some time living with des Grieux, but, once their money ran out, she accepted Geronte’s invitation to live in his luxurious home. Manon does not hide from her brother that she longs for des Grieux’s love. Worried that Manon’s emotions might lead her right back to des Grieux’s shabby home, thus losing Geronte’s financial support, Lescaut goes to find des Grieux. Lescaut hopes that a brief meeting between the former lovers will set Manon at ease. Geronte returns from a riding party with friends, to whom he wants to show off his latest acquisition – Manon, his living statue. Des Grieux shows up during the performance, and Manon notices him. Geronte and his guests leave the room, and Manon promises to join them in a few minutes. Des Grieux and Manon finally talk, which ends in a renewal of their love for one another. Geronte returns to see the end of their passionate conversation. To provoke him, Manon smashes one of his most valuable sculptures. Geronte leaves, saying he will return shortly. Des Grieux begs for Manon to leave Geronte’s manor, but Manon isn’t able to leave her luxurious surroundings so easily. Lescaut comes in, informing then that Geronte is on his way back with his guards. He urges them to flee, but Manon hesitates, giving the excuse that she wants to gather up some valuables to take with them. The guards show up. Lescaut and des Grieux are forced to go, leaving Manon behind.
Interme zzo and Act III
Des Grieux hopes to be reunited with his love, and with the help of guards hired by Lescaut plans on rescuing Manon from being deported. Manon is genuinely happy to see des Grieux, but upon learning of his plot to rescue her, begs him not to follow through. A clamour is heard from the street; Lescaut’s rescue-mission has gone awry. Geronte’s manor-museum, the most valuable item in his collection, is being deconstructed in order to move it. A customs official is taking inventory of the sculptures as they are being packed up. Manon’s name is also on the inventory list. Geronte enters, des Grieux begs Geronte to give him a moment with Manon. Geronte agrees. Everyone else leaves the room. Only des Grieux and Manon remain – des Grieux in the hope that he will regain his life with Manon, and Manon, still hesitant in her emotions.
Des Grieux has a dream-vision. In his dream, he also sees his mirror opposites in unlucky love. Des Grieux is but an observer in this torturous séance, along with Manon. They have both come to yet another crossroads in their relationship, an emotional desert. Manon is by his side, asking for his help, but des Grieux is no longer able to help her. At the end of his dream, before she dies, Manon confesses that he was the only one she ever truly loved.