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The Story of 'Manon Lescaut'

ACT ONE opens 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. 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 carriage to make their escape.

Geronte is angry when he finds out that the woman he had eyes for has absconded with his carriage, 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.

That prediction comes true in ACT TWO, which finds Manon comfortably ensconced in Geronte's opulent palace in Paris. True to form, she grew weary of living in modest circumstances with Des Grieux. Before long she dumped him and came to Geronte looking for the good life. Now Manon is sumptuously dressed, covered in silks and jewels with every luxury at her fingertips.

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 rather than leave immediately Manon stops to gather her jewels -- her gifts from Geronte. She soon regrets it, as Geronte returns with the police and Manon is arrested for theft and prostitution.

Manon is hauled off to a prison near the port of Le Havre, where Act Three takes place. She's been sentenced to exile and is set to be shipped to a penal colony in Louisiana, along with a whole group of convicted prostitutes. Des Grieux and Lescaut plan to help Manon 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.

The journey is depicted by a popular orchestral intermezzo 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 wanders off, 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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