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The Story of Puccini's 'Manon Lescaut'

BACKGROUND: The beautiful, though avaricious, Manon is a character who actually headlines two popular, but very different, operas — the one featured here, by Puccini, and Massenet's version of the same story. Puccini was acutely aware that his 1893 opera Manon Lescaut would be compared to Massenet's Manon, which appeared nine years earlier. But Puccini felt he was the one who truly understood the title character.

"Massenet feels the subject as a Frenchman, with the powder and the minuets," Puccini said. "I shall feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion."

The story had already been around for a century and had captivated quite a few artists. In it, a young woman is seduced by a life of opulence and luxury. She abandons her true love to achieve that life, but comes to regret it. In other words, she gets her comeuppance. At least that was the idea when the novel Manon Lescaut was first published in 1731. Its author was a Benedictine monk named Abbe Prevost d'Exiles, who had a pretty checkered past of his own. But, being a man, he got the benefit of a doubt.

When Puccini came along a hundred years later, he took a more sympathetic view of the fallen woman, Manon. And he searched for a librettist with a similar bent, eventually settling on journalist and playwright Luigi Illica. Before long, Puccini had his first hit.

Manon Lescaut put Puccini on the map, and made him a rich man. His great operas La Boheme, Tosca, and Madame Butterfly soon followed.

ACT 1: The action begins at a roadside inn near Amiens, France. While young students and townspeople entertain themselves, a stagecoach arrives. Its passengers include a rich, old man named Geronte. Others are a young soldier named Lescaut, and his beautiful sister Manon, who is still a teenager. When the three stop at the inn, one of the young men is smitten by Manon and engages her in conversation. He is the Chevalier des Grieux and, despite his high-sounding title, he is penniless.

Des Grieux soon learns that Manon is on her way to a convent, where her father wants her locked up to protect her from her own passions. Des Grieux also discovers that Geronte has a plan to kidnap Manon and take her off to Paris. Des Grieux doesn't much like that idea. He puts his charm into action and, at least for the moment, young love prevails. Des Grieux persuades Manon to run off with him, and they even use Geronte's coach to make their escape.

Geronte is angry when he finds out that the woman he had eyes for has absconded with his coach, but he's not angry for long. Manon's brother tells Geronte that his sister has a taste for pretty things. She'll soon grow tired of living in poverty and start looking for the kind of extravagance only a man like Geronte can provide.

ACT 2: The second act opens in Geronte's palace in Paris. Manon is sumptuously dressed, covered in silks and jewels, with every luxury at her fingertip. As her brother had predicted, she grew weary of living in modest circumstances with Des Grieux. So she dumped him and came to Geronte looking for the good life.

Still, Manon misses the passion she shared with Des Grieux. Her brother Lescaut is sympathetic and he secretly arranges for Manon to meet with Des Grieux later that night.

Des Grieux soon appears. He and Manon promptly fall into each other's arms. When Geronte walks in on them he's not surprised, but he is furious. He says he can't believe Manon has betrayed him — especially after all the "gifts of love" that he has given her. Manon laughs in Geronte's face. "Love!?" she says to the old man. "Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately!" Geronte curtly excuses himself — but says they'll meet again soon.

That gives the lovers a chance to flee. But instead of leaving immediately Manon stops to gather her jewels — her gifts from Geronte. She soon regrets it. Geronte returns with the police and Manon is arrested for theft and prostitution.

ACTS 3 & 4: Manon has been hauled off to a prison near the port of Le Havre, where Act Three takes place. Manon is to be shipped to a penal colony in Louisiana, along with a whole group of imprisoned prostitutes. Des Grieux and Manon's brother, Lescaut, plan to help her escape as she and the others are boarding the ship for transport, but it's obvious that they'll never be able to pull it off. Des Grieux begs the ship's captain to let him on board. The captain takes pity on the couple and allows Des Grieux to accompany Manon.

There's a popular orchestral intermezzo at this point, depicting their journey, and when Act Four opens, Manon and Des Grieux are alone "on a vast plain on the borders of New Orleans," where the land is barren and dry. (Puccini's grasp of North American geography, it seems, was somewhat limited.)

Manon is desperately thirsty, and she's too weak to go any farther. Reluctantly, Des Grieux leaves her alone and goes deeper into the desert, searching for water. Manon reflects on her life, and realizes that the only thing worthwhile has been her love for Des Grieux. He returns empty-handed. There's no water in sight. Alone together and without hope, the two say their goodbyes and Manon dies in Des Grieux's arms.

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