Manon Lescaut is a "dramma lirico", or opera, in four acts by Giacomo Puccini to an Italian libretto by Domenico Oliva and Luigi Illica, based on L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost. First performance: Teatro Regio, Turin, 1893.
Manon Lescaut was Puccini's third opera and his first great success. His publisher was against any project based on Prévost's story, for Massenet had already made it into a successful opera, Manon. In fact the French composer, Daniel Auber, had also already written an opera with the title, Manon Lescaut. Despite all the warnings, Puccini proceeded. "Manon is a heroine I believe in and therefore she cannot fail to win the hearts of the public. Why shouldn’t there be two operas about her? A woman like Manon can have more than one lover."
Some musical elements in Manon Lescaut are taken from his earlier works. For example, the Madrigal Sulla vetta tu del monte from Act II appears to be taken out from Agnus Dei, which was part of his mass, Messa. Puccini also recycled in Manon Lescaut many of his string music: the quartet Crisantemi (January 1890), two Menuets (probably 1884) and a Scherzo (1883 ?). The love-theme comes from the aria Mentia l'avviso (1883).
Act I. Before an inn. Crowd strolling about; men drinking and gaming. Students waiting for the girls to come from work. (Madrigal, Edmund: "Hail! lovely night," with mocking chorus: "Ha! ha! ha!") Edmund sings of youthful pleasure. ("Youth is ours.") The girls appear. Des Grieux enters, but is melancholy and does not join the other students. (Des Grieux: "No, away, you tempting fair ones!") They joke with him. (Chorus: "Dance, revel's wild enjoyment.") Manon and Lescaut descend from the coach. Des Grieux is enchanted with Manon. ("Never did I behold so fair a maiden.") He approaches her when Lescaut enters the inn, and she promises to meet him later. The students laugh, pointing at them merrily. Lescaut returns with Geronte, who also is captivated by Manon, saying she will only be wasted upon a convent. He plans to carry her off, while Lescaut is engaged at cards, but Edmund, overhearing, suggests to Des Grieux to go off with Manon himself in the old roué's post-chaise. Manon appears (Manon: "Behold me!"), coquets with Des Grieux, and they fly together. Geronte and Lescaut arrive on the scene as they disappear, and Lescaut proposes that they follow post haste to Paris. (Chorus: "Fragrant breezes lightly wafting.")
Act II. Paris; room in Geronte's house, where Manon is installed as his mistress, having left Des Grieux when his money gave out. The hairdresser has come, and while he is arranging her hair she talks with Lescaut, who congratulates her. (Lescaut: "A modest little cottage.") Manon is sad and her thoughts turn to Des Grieux. Geronte is too old and wicked, he bores her. Singers enter to amuse her. (Madrigal: "Speed we o'er the mountain's fastness.") Geronte brings a dancing master; he and his friends kiss Manon's hand. All dance a minuet, (Manon, Geronte and chorus: "All the golden praise you murmur."); when the men go to stroll along the boulevards, Des Grieux suddenly appears. (Manon: "You love me then no more ?" Duet: " 'Tis love's own magic spell.") As they renew their vows, Geronte returns unexpectedly. He salutes them ironically, reminding Manon of his many favours to her. She replies that by looking in his mirror he will see that she cannot love him. Bowing low he leaves them. The lovers rejoice in their freedom, but Manon hesitates at the thought of leaving her jewels and pretty frocks. (Des Grieux: "Ah, Manon, you betray me!") Lescaut enters in breathless haste, making signs that they must depart immediately. Manon snatches up her jewels, and they go to the door. It is locked by Geronte's order. A squad of soldiers appear, to arrest Manon, who, in trying to escape, drops the jewels at Geronte's feet. She is dragged off, and Des Grieux is not permitted to follow her. Intermezzo.
Act III. Havre. A square near the harbour. Manon is in prison. Lescaut and Des Grieux linger near, By talking to her through the bars, they learn that she is to be deported to America. (Des Grieux: " 'Tis dawn!"). Vainly they attempt a rescue. The guard appears, escorting a group of women, who are going on the same ship as Manon. She walks among them, pale and sad. (Chorus: "Indeed she is lovely.") The crowd make brutal comments. Des Grieux, going to Manon's side, is roughly pushed away by the sergeant, but the captain of the ship, seeing his intense grief, allows him to board the ship. (Des Grieux: "Madness seizes me.")
Act IV. A plain near New Orleans. Manon and Des Grieux appear, half-dead with fatigue. (Des Grieux: "Fear not to lean on me.") They do not know where to go for shelter. (Duet: "Most cruel fate.") Des Grieux is alarmed by Manon's appearance and goes to look for water for her. Manon thinks he has left her forever. (Manon: "Alone, forsaken.") He returns, frantically calling her, but she is beyond human aid and dies in his arms.