Major Operas | Manon Lescaut by Giacomo Puccini | Turn of the Century
With Manon Lescaut, Puccini took his place at the head of the Italian operatic table. Ricordi worked hard to persuade Puccini of the dangers inherent in setting a story that had already received successful treatment by Massenet, but the young composer was not to be swayed.
Puccini’s determination proved well-founded, for the opera received an ecstatic reception after its premiere in the Teatro Regio, Turin on 1 February 1893. Although it remains an unsatisfactory work in many ways, the level of musical invention is extremely high, betraying in particular Puccini’s strong interest in Wagner.
Townspeople and students are gathered outside an inn in Amiens. The Chevalier des Grieux addresses some girls with a mocking serenade. A coach arrives bearing the wealthy, elderly, Geronte, and Lescaut and his sister Manon. Geronte has designs upon Manon and Lescaut sees the advantage in helping him. Left alone, Manon tells Des Grieux that she is on her way to a convent. He reflects on her beauty. Edmondo, a student, warns Des Grieux that Geronte plans to abduct Manon. Des Grieux persuades her to leave for Paris with him in the carriage. Finding them gone, Lescaut observes that it will not be long before Des Grieux’s money runs out and she is back with Geronte.
Manon is now Geronte’s mistress. Despite the luxury that surrounds her she is nostalgic for the humble lodgings she shared with Des Grieux. Lescaut tells her that Des Grieux has turned to gambling to be able to support her again. Geronte arrives with his cronies and watches as a dancing master teaches her the minuet. Lescaut goes to fetch Des Grieux. When everyone has gone Des Grieux enters. He reproaches her for deserting him, but soon he is overcome by her beauty once more. Geronte discovers them together and threatens that they will meet again. Lescaut urges them to escape, but Manon is reluctant to abandon all her jewels and starts gathering them up. Des Grieux tells her that her love of luxury can only lead to unhappiness. It is too late. Geronte enters with the guards and she is arrested for theft.
Manon has been taken to Le Havre for deportation to Louisiana. Lescaut plans to bribe a guard to help her escape. Des Grieux stands below her window at the barracks and warns her, but Lescaut’s plan fails. Manon is taken with the prostitutes to the ship. Des Grieux pleads with the captain to be allowed to go with her.
Manon and Des Grieux are escaping across a vast plain near New Orleans, but she is exhausted and begs him to go so she can die alone. He leaves to find shelter, but when he returns she is dying.
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