The bustling courtyard of an inn at Amiens. De Brétigny, a nobleman, has just arrived, in the company of Guillot, an aging rake (he is the Minister of Finance), and three flirtatious young actresses, Poussette, Javotte and Rosette. While the obsequious innkeeper is serving this party with his best dinner, the townspeople collect to witness the arrival of the coach from Arras, among them Lescaut, a Guardsman, here, he informs his comrades, to meet a kinswoman. Shortly, the coach appears, and among the crowd he quickly identifies his pretty, fragile young cousin, Manon, who asks pardon for her bewilderment (Je suis toujours tout étourdie); this is, after all, her very first journey -- one which is taking her to the convent.
Left alone for a moment, Manon is accosted by the opportunistic Guillot, who tells her he has a carriage waiting, in which they can leave together. His heavy-handed seduction, however, to derision from the three young actresses, is routed by the return of Lescaut, who thenm subjects his cousin to a lecture (Regardez-moi bien dans les yeux) on the behavior proper to a demure young member of the Lescaut family. Drawn by the prospect of some gambling with his friends, he nevertheless leaves her unattended once more. Alone, she reflects admiringly on the fashionably decked attractions of the three actresses, but reproaches herself (Voyons, Manon), unconvincingly vowing to rid herself of all worldly visions.
A romantically inclined young chevalier, des Grieux, on a journey home for reunion with his father, catches sight of Manon, and is instantly in love; when he approaches she is at once charmed by his chivalrous address (Et je sais votre nom), and their exchange rapidly becomes a mutual avowal of love. Both their projected journeys, hers to the convent, des Grieux's to his home, are swiftly abandoned, as they decide to flee together (Nous vivrons à Paris), but already there are hints of incompatible aspirations: while he returns, over and again, to ``tous les deux'' (together), the phrase she repeatedly fondles is ``à Paris.'' Making good use of the carriage provided by the disappointed Guillot, the lovers escape.
Paris, the apartment of Manon and des Grieux ; he, without much hope, is writing a letter to his father, imploring permission to marry her. There is a knock at the door, and Lescaut enters, intent on creating a scene. His concern for offended family honor is, however, only camouflage for his new and remunerative alliance with de Brétigny, who has accompanied him, masquerading as a fellow-Guardsman. While, to prove his honorable intentions, des Grieux is showing Lescaut the letter to his father, . confidentially warns Manon that tonight des Grieux, on the orders of his father, will be seized and carried off, but points out that, protected by the de Brétigny position and wealth, she can move on to a glittering future.
After the two visitors deaprt, Manon appears to vacillate between the prospect and warning des Grieux, but when her lover goes out to post his letter, her touching farewell to the humble domesticity she has shared (Adieu, notre petite table) makes clear she has decided to go with de Brétigny. Returning, unaware of any change, des Grieux raptly conveys his more modest vision of their future happiness (En fermant les yeux, the once-famous `Dream Song'). Going outside to investigate an apparent disturbance, he is indeed seized and hustled away, leaving Manon to voice her regrets.
Paris, the promenade of the Cours-la-Reine on a feast-day. Among the throng of holiday-makers and vendors of all kinds, Guillot appears, still frantically flirting with the young actresse, and Lescaut, hymning the pleasures of gambling (Pourquoi bon l'économie?). Shortly de Brétigny arrives, soon joined by Manon, now sumptuously dressed and with a retinue of admirers; she performs a little song about her new eminence (Je marche sur tous les chemins), followed by a sprightly gavotte (Obéissons quand leur voix appelle) on the joys of love and youth.
Des Grieux's father, the comte, greets de Brétigny, and Manon overhears that his former lover is ``Chevalier'' no longer, but `Abbé,'' having entered the seminary of Saint-Sulpice. Approaching the comte, Manon confirms the news, and tries to dicover whether his son still loves her. The ballet follows, but Manon, seized by the desire to see des Grieux once more, hurries off to Saint-Sulpice.
Saint-Sulpice. From the chapel, a fashionable congregation is dispersing, enthusiastic over the sermon of the new abbé (Quelle éloquence!). Des Grieux enters, in clerical garb, and his father adds his voice to the chorus of praise, but tries to dissuade his son from this new life, so that he can perpetuate the family name (Epouse quelque brave fille).
Having failed to shake his son's resolve, he withdraws, and des Grieux, alone, wrestles against his tenacious memories of Manon (Ah! Fuyez, douce image). As he prays, Manon herself appears, to implore his forgiveness for her treachery. Furiously, he attempts to reject her, but when (in the deliciously serpentine N'est-ce plus ma main?) she recalls their past intimacies, his resistance is overcome, and their voices join in an impassioned avowal of love.
A gaming salon at the Hôtel de Transylvanie. Lescaut and Guillot are among the gamblers, and the three young actresses are prepared to attach themselves to any winner. Manon arrives with des Grieux; no longer with any illusions as to her character (Manon! Manon! Sphinx étonnant) he admits his helpless thralldom, and allows himself to be persuaded to gamble, in hopes of gaining the wealth she craves. He plays at cards with Guillot and wins, winning each time when Guillot doubles and redoubls the wager. As Manon exults, Guillot accuses des Grieux of cheating. Des Grieux hotly denies the charge; Guillot leaves, but shortly returns with the police, to whom he denounces des Grieux as a cheat and Manon as dissolute.
The elder des Grieux comes on the scene, and tells his son that while he will intercede in his behalf, he will do nothing to save Manon. In a big ensemble, with Guillot exulting over his revenge, Manon lamenting the end of all joy, des Grieux swearing to defend her and the rest expressing consternation and horror, the arrested pair are led away.
A desolate spot near the road to Le Havre. Des Grieux, freed by his father's intervention, and a penitent Lescaut, now his ally, wait to waylay the convoy in which Manon, with other convicts, is being marched to the port for transportation as a woman of ill-fame. A detachment of soldiers arrives with their prisoners; the would-be rescuers recognize the hopelessness of attacking so strong an escort, but Lescaut succeeds in bribing their sergeant to all Manon to stay here till evening. The convoy moves on, and a sick and exhausted Manon falls to the ground at des Grieux's feet.
In his arms, near delirium, she recapitulates the scenes -- and the melodies -- of former happiness. Des Grieux tells her the past can yet be reborn, but Manon, calm now, knows it is too late; with the words ``Et c'est là l'histoire de Manon Lescaut,'' she dies.
contributed by Edwin Ahearn; © 2003