• Jules Massenet. Opéra comique in five acts. 1883.
  • Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille, after the novel L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut) by the Abbé Prévost.
  • First performance by the Opéra-Comique at the Salle Favart, Paris, on 19th January 1884.
Manon Lescaut soprano
Chevalier des Grieux tenor
Comte des Grieux, his father bass
Poussette, actresses mezzo-soprano
Javotte, actresses mezzo-soprano
Rosette, actresses mezzo-soprano
Lescaut, Manon’s cousin baritone
Guillot de Morfontaine, an elderly roué tenor
De Brétigny, a nobleman baritone
Innkeeper baritone
Two Guardsmen tenor & baritone
Maid mezzo-soprano

In the courtyard of an inn at Amiens the coach from Arras arrives, bringing the 15-year-old Manon, to be met by her cousin, on her way to a convent, where her father is sending her. Guillot, who has been waiting for his dinner at the inn with De Brétigny and the three actresses, Poussette, Javotte and Rosette, approaches her, offering her, among other things, the use of his coach. She is reproached by her cousin, but dazzled by the apparent luxury in which others seem to live. Des Grieux, who is travelling to see his father, catches sight of Manon and falls in love with her and the two take Guillot’s coach and escape together to Paris. Living together there, Des Grieux seeks permission from his father to marry, but Lescaut and Brétigny arrive, suggesting to Manon a more luxurious existence and telling her that Des Grieux is to be carried off, on his father’s orders. In the Cours-la-Reine in Paris the three actresses have escaped, for a moment, the vigilance of Guillot. Manon enters escorted by her new protector, De Brétigny, and learns from the Comte des Grieux that his son is to be ordained priest. She orders her coach to take her to St Sulpice, where Des Grieux is to preach, leaving Guillot humiliated again, having obeyed her whim of inviting the opera-ballet for her entertainment, something denied her by Brétigny. At the seminary of St Sulpice Manon meets Des Grieux, who now gives up his intention to enter the priesthood, his love reawakened. In the fourth act, at the Hôtel Transylvanie, Lescaut and the actresses are gambling, joined by Guillot. Manon and Des Grieux enter and he is induced to gamble as well, now his fortune is almost exhausted. He wins, but Guillot accuses him of cheating and has him arrested, supported by the Comte des Grieux, who hopes to bring his son to his senses. Manon is arrested as his accomplice, and while Des Grieux is quickly released, she is condemned, for her immoral way of life, to transportation. Attempts to secure her release fail, but Lescaut bribes the sergeant and she is allowed a final moment with Des Grieux in which they recall their earlier happiness. Broken, she dies, begging his forgiveness.

Massenet’s opera, probably his best known, contains a remarkable portrait of Manon, as she grows from wide-eyed innocence to a guilty womanhood. There are some ambiguities in the character of Lescaut, her brother in the original novel but now her cousin, combining in himself the character of guardian of the family honour, bragging soldier and loyal friend of Des Grieux. In Paris Manon reads back to Des Grieux the letter he has written to his father, seeking permission to marry her, On l’appelle Manon (She is called Manon). By the end of the second act she is bidding farewell to her relatively humble existence with Des Grieux in Adieu, petite table (Farewell, little table). In a moment of dramatic irony, Des Grieux returns to tell her of the country retreat where they will live, En fermant les yeux (Closing our eyes), followed, as the scene ends, by his abduction. At the Cours-la-Reine Manon is enjoying the luxury that association with De Brétigny has brought her, expressing her satisfaction in Je marche sur tous les chemins (I step proudly every way). Des Grieux has music of particular poignancy in the last act, when he is parted from Manon for ever.