Love for Sale: Puccini's 'Manon Lescaut'

Overview
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ACT ONE opens at a roadside inn in France. While young students and townspeople entertain themselves, a stagecoach arrives. In it is a rich old man named Geronte, along with a soldier named Lescaut and his beautiful sister, Manon.  When the three stop at the inn, one of the young men gathered there is smitten by Manon, and starts a conversation. He's the Chevalier des Grieux and, despite his high-sounding title, he's penniless.

Des Grieux soon learns that Manon is on her way to a convent, where her family has sent her, presumably to protect her from her own passions. Des Grieux also learns, from his friend Edmondo, that Geronte has a plan to kidnap Manon and take her away to Paris.

Des Grieux doesn't much like that idea, so he turns on the charm -- and for the moment, at least, young love prevails. Des Grieux convinces Manon to run off with him, and they even use Geronte's coach to make their escape. When Geronte finds out what's happened, he's furious.  But Manon's brother calms the old man down.  As Act One ends, he tells Geronte that Manon will soon grow tired of living in poverty.  Then she'll start looking for the kind of extravagant lifestyle only Geronte can provide.

As ACT TWO opens, we find Manon in Geronte's palace in Paris.  She's dressed extravagantly, covered in silks and jewels, with every luxury at her fingertips.  Lescaut's prediction that she'd get tired of living in poverty with Des Grieux has come true.

Still, despite her sumptuous lifestyle, Manon misses the genuine passion she shared with Des Grieux. Geronte may be rich, but he's also old, and not exactly heartthrob material.  Her brother is sympathetic, so he secretly arranges a meeting for Manon with Des Grieux, for later that night. But for now, Manon has other things on her mind.   Geronte has arranged for her presentation to the royal court, and in preparation, the flamboyant Dancing Master has arrived to instruct her.

When the lessons have concluded, Des Grieux appears.  He and Manon fall into each other's arms and swear their love. Then Geronte walks in. He's hardly surprised, but he is angry. He says he can't believe Manon has betrayed his love -- especially after all the money he's spent so she can live the high life.  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, and soon. 

That gives the lovers a chance to flee. But Manon hesitates. They could leave immediately, but instead Manon begins to gather all her jewels -- gifts from Geronte. And that's her undoing.  Geronte returns with the police, who arrest Manon for theft and prostitution.

ACT THREE takes place at the port of Le Havre, and begins with a well-known orchestral intermezzo, sometimes called "The Journey to Le Havre." Manon is due to be deported to a penal colony in Louisiana.  She takes her place among a whole group of convicted prostitutes, to be led onboard a prison ship.

Des Grieux and her brother Lescaut are watching, and they've planned an escape for her. But when the plan goes into action, they realize there's no way they can pull it off. Des Grieux begs the ship's captain to allow him on board. The captain takes pity on the couple, and permits Des Grieux to accompany Manon.

As ACT FOUR opens, Manon and Des Grieux are stranded on a "vast plain on the borders of New Orleans" -- in a parched, desert landscape. (It seems Puccini's grasp of North American geography was limited.)

Manon complains of a desperate thirst. Des Grieux leaves her alone to search the area -- giving Manon time for the plaintive aria "Sola, perduta, abbandonata" -- "Alone, lost, abandoned."   She reflects on her life, she realizing that the only thing worthwhile has been her love for Des Grieux, and his for her.

When Des Grieux returns, he's empty handed; there's no water to be found.  Manon is too weak to go farther. Stranded, and without hope, the two say their goodbyes, and Manon dies in Des Grieux's arms.