“Manon,” an opera in five acts, with music by Jules Massenet and words by Meilhac and Gille after the novel of Abbé Prévost, was first presented in Paris, Jan. 19, 1884.
The Chevalier des Grieux. The Count des Grieux, his father. Lescaut of the Royal Guard, Manon’s cousin. Guillot Merfontain, minister of finance, a roué. De Brétigny, a nobleman. An Innkeeper. Attendant of St. Sulpice. A sergeant of guards. A soldier. Rossette, Poussette, actresses. Javotte, Manon, the adventuress. Gamblers, croupiers, guards, travelers, townspeople, ladies, gentlemen.
The opera opens in the courtyard of the inn at Amiens, which is filled with a somewhat motley crowd, including Lescaut of the Royal Guard, who, according to the present opera-book, is Manon’s cousin and not her brother, as in the version of the Puccini opera. When Manon alights from the coach, she creates a sensation on account of her remarkable beauty. She is on her way to a convent and is as ill-fitted for such a life as one could well be, for she responds with unusual abandon to the joy of living.
The young student, Des Grieux, musing with happy anticipation upon the morrow, when he shall be in Paris again with his father, sees Manon. It is a case of love at first sight for both of them. Manon’s motive is largely a worldly one, for she is of the peasantry and Des Grieux’s position fires her vanity. In almost less time than it takes to tell it, the two reckless children are on their way to Paris in the coach in which the old roué Guillot, who had been making merry at the inn, had hoped to carry off the girl.
Before Des Grieux can secure the coveted consent of his father to their marriage, he and Manon are tracked to their simple but happy retreat by Lescaut and De Brétigny. The former has many reproaches and a great deal to say about ” the honor of his house ” but it develops that he is willing to sell Manon to a higher bidder. Des Grieux is delivered to his father’s spies who abduct him. Manon is left to console herself with De Brétigny and the luxury with which his wealth makes it possible for him to surround her.
Manon is seen in the third act in the midst of the magnificent evidences of her dishonor and apparently enjoying the flattery of the swarm of admirers about her. From Des Grieux’s own father, she learns that her unhappy, lover is now a priest at St. Sulpice. She flies to him at once. In this scene, remarkable for its dramatic power, Manon succeeds in prevailing upon Des Grieux, who tries in vain to deceive himself into thinking that all his love is dead, to break his vows and to return to enjoy the world at her side.
In the fourth act, which takes place in a gambling-house in Paris, Lescaut, surrounded as usual by his favorites, Poussette, Javette and Rossette, is joined by Manon and Des Grieux who now are destitute. Manon urges the Chevalier to the gaming-table much against his will, hoping that thereby he will mend his fortunes. He does win but he is accused of cheating by the jealous Guillot, who causes his arrest. In this dilemma, he is saved by his father who pays his debts. But also through the influence of Guillot, Manon is sentenced to deportation. This is never accomplished, for she dies from shame and exhaustion on the road to Havre where the embarkation is to be made, but not before she has been clasped in the arms of the faithful Des Grieux who bends over her as her soul takes flight.
” Manon,” which is one of the more important products of the modern French school and is probably the ablest of all of Massenet’s operas, is so closely knit in music and text that the naming of portions of particular and especial excellence or interest is difficult. The system of short phrases (left-motifs) to characterize and distinguish the various personages of the drama has been employed by the composer. The orchestra web throughout is intricate and elaborate yet of great eloquence and beauty. Portions that will impress the hearer as effective and interesting are Manon’s first song, ” Je suis encor tout étourdie” (” I’m still confused and dazzled quite”); the duet in the first act for Manon and Des Grieux; Des Grieux’s ” ream song ” in the second act ; Manon’s gay admonition “Obéissons quand leur voix appelle” (“Let us obey when they shall call “) ; the intensely impassioned music of the duet at St. Sulpice; Manon’s exultation when Des Grieux wins at gaming and her lament following his arrest.