“Manon Lescaut” is a lyric drama in four acts with music by Giacomo Puccini, the libretto being the work of the composer and a committee of friends, with an English version by Mowbray Marras after the familiar work of the same name by Abbé Prévost. It was first presented in Turin in 1893.
Lescaut, her brother, a sergeant of the king’s guards. The Chevalier Des Grieux. Geronte de Ravoir, Treasurer-General. Edmondo, a student. The Innkeeper. A singer. The Dancing-Master. A lamplighter. Sergeant of the Royal Archers. A captain in the navy. The Hairdresser. Singers, old beaus and abbés, girls, citizens, villagers, students, people, courtezans, archers, sailors.
The opera opens at Amiens, in the later half of the Eighteenth Century, in the square where the post-chaises depart for Paris. Here frolic the gayest of throngs, students being a conspicuous element. Among the students are Edmondo and Des Grieux, the latter a youth of good family, who, when chaffed by his companions, declares gaily that he knows nothing of the dismal farce called love. While all the young fellows take time from their drinking and card-playing to flirt with the girls who stroll by upon the avenue, a diligence draws up at the inn from which alights a young girl, Manon Lescaut, accompanied by her brother and Geronte, an elderly state official. During the time the luggage is being disposed of, the girl sits down before the inn and is approached by Des Grieux, who is enchanted with her grace and beauty. With much simplicity she tells him her name. She also tells him that on the morrow she is to be consigned forever to a convent. To her admirer’s expression of horror that one so well fitted for the joyousness of the world should endure such a gloomy fate, she makes answer that there is no escape from the dictates of the paternal will. Geronte, too, is fascinated by the lovely Manon and her brother shows some inclination to dispose of her to the highest bidder. While Lescaut, who is a professional gambler with, in addition, many other unsavory qualities, is engaging the students in disastrous play, Geronte, who has planned to elope with Manon, gives orders to the landlord to have a carriage waiting for a man and a maiden who will ride to Paris like the wind. Edmondo overhears these directions and having observed his friend’s sudden infatuation, tells him of the girl’s peril. Des Grieux speedily resolves to take Geronte’s place in the carriage. When Manon appears, she offers but a half-hearted resistance to her abduction at the hands of the charming youth, and in a trice the two mad caps are on their way to Paris followed by the maledictions of the baffled roué.
The two young lovers pass an idyllic period together in Paris but their funds give out, and when Lescaut tracks them to their abode, Manon with whom the desire for luxury is a veritable passion, falls a victim to the worldly allurements held out by the rich old libertine Geronte and runs away with him.
At the opening of the second act, we find her installed in Geronte’s house. She sits in a splendid salon, surrounded by servants, hair-dressers, singers and dancing-masters. Lescaut is much pleased with this arrangement, for he is not above accepting the ill-earned bounty of his sister. Just as her coiffure is finished, he comes in. He compliments her and tells her that she should thank him for rescuing her from ” the modest little cottage very rich in kisses but short in money.” But Manon presents many strangely contrasting phases of character and much as the luxury delights her, she finds herself unable to forget Des Grieux and his refined and poetical devotion, which forgives for her sake his exile from home and the withdrawal of his allowance. She is not very much interested in learning the minuet and when Des Grieux, dejected, appears at her apartment, having long sought trace of her, she throws her arms about him in rapture and overwhelms him with endearments. Thus they are surprised by Geronte, who angrily reproaches her for her ingratitude and faithlessness. In reply she laughs at him and bids him look in the mirror and prove to himself his inability to inspire love. Geronte, roused to fury, causes her arrest and has her sentenced to be deported as a ” fille de joie.”
Manon accepts her lot with the fortitude which characterizes her. She makes one attempt to escape from the harbor at Havre but is recaptured. Before this, Des Grieux has visited her to kiss her hands through the bars. The roll is called, she passes to the ship with the other women of her unhappy class, weeping and cowering under the stares and rude comments of the crowd. The agony of Des Grieux, who is a witness of her humiliation, touches the captain, who allows him to come on board and, as the original tale has it, he becomes a cabin-boy in order to be near her.
The last act finds Manon and her lover in America, wandering on the plains near the territory of New Orleans. They are lost in a strange country, weary and thirsty, and the delicate form of Manon is racked with fever. Bravely she tries to keep on and to lend encouragement to her heavy-hearted companion but at last is overcome with exhaustion and falls in a swoon. The distracted young man revives her and leaves her for a few moments in the hope of finding some woodland hut which may afford them refuge. At sunset he returns unsuccessful, to find her delirious. Finally, as her weakness increases, the terrible realization that the chill of death is upon his beloved Manon is forced upon him. With her last breath Manon finds joy in protesting the depths of her love, murmuring at the last,
Time will obliterate my faults But my love will never die.
The work which captivated Italy and which has made its way successfully into other countries is an example of the new school of realism. Many of its scenes are treated with great power, notably the embarkation at Havre. There have been several operatic versions of Abbé Prévost’s celebrated but unpleasant romance, among them one by Auber, one by Massenet and one by Kleinmichel, but this is generally conceded to be the best. It was Puccini’s first success.
Notable passages are the song of heart-free Des Grieux, ” Tra voi, belle, brunee bionde ” (” With you fair ones, brunette or blonde “) ; the chorus which welcomes the arrival of the diligence ; Des Grieux’s greeting to Manon, ” Oh, come gravi le vostre parole ” (“Ah, how earnest are thy speech and manner “) ; the charming duet of Manon and her brother; the music of the minuet; Manon’s song, ” L’ora, O Tirsa, è vaga e bella ” (” The hour, O Tersa, is favoring and fair “) ;the rapturous duet when the lovers meet in Geronte’s salon; the lovely intermezzo before Act III; the roll-call of the sergeant on the dock at Havre ; Des Grieux’s plea to the commandant to take him on board and Des Grieux’s song to Manon in the wilderness, ” Non mi rispondi, amore” (” Wilt thou not answer? beloved “).