About this work
Manon Lescaut was premiered at the Teatro Regio, in Turin, Italy, on February 1, 1893. It was a sensation, immediately elevating Puccini to the front rank of Italian composers and making his name well-known throughout Europe. While he would have many other successes in his career -- Madama Butterfly (in its revised version) and Tosca -- he would never again experience this kind of overwhelming triumph.
The libretto, based on Antoine François Prévost's novel, is quite effective despite the participation of five hands in it, though not all in collaboration: Leoncavallo (who fashioned the first version), Marco Praga, Domenico Oliva, Luigi Illica, and Giuseppe Giacosa.
The story is set in late eighteenth century Paris, where the nobleman Des Grieux espies the beautiful Manon Lescaut, accompanied by her brother (Lescaut) and the treasurer-general, Geronte di Ravoir, who fancies himself her suitor. Des Grieux is captivated by her and learns from her she plans to join the convent. He convinces her to run off with him, but Geronte forges other plans and she eventually becomes his mistress, but not before living with and then leaving Des Grieux. Some time later, at Geronte's Paris residence, Manon confides in her brother that she is bored with Geronte and wishes to have Des Grieux back. Lescaut fetches the latter, and when Des Grieux and Manon attempt to run off, Geronte has her arrested as a thief and woman of loose morals. Authorities plan to deport her to a Louisiana prison. Des Grieux cannot bear to be without her, and following a failed attempt to free her, boards the ship bound for Louisiana. Later in America, Des Grieux flees with her after a duel with the nephew of the colony's governor. On the run with Des Grieux, Manon becomes seriously ill and bids him a sad and dramatic farewell. He falls unconscious over her body.
Puccini's score is lushly orchestrated and features the usual quota of memorable tunes and imaginative vocal writing. Of the many popular numbers in the opera, the Act One "Cortese damigella" is among the more memorable, not least because of its soaring melody and deft writing for both Manon and Des Grieux. The ensuing "Donna non vidi Mai", in which Des Grieux declares his feelings for Manon, is one of Puccini's most beguiling arias, full of passion and yearning, instantly appealing even to the ear unaccustomed to operatic singing.
The Act Two aria, "In quelle trini morbide", sung by Manon who is now disenchanted by Geronte, is another gem. Later on in that act, when Des Grieux attempts to free Manon from Geronte, there is a passionate and intense love scene between the two lovers ("Tu, tu, amore? Tu?!"). "Sola perduta, abbandonata" is another attractive aria for Manon, that comes near the end of the opera. Here, she sings of her past life and her encumbering beauty. In sum, this is one of Puccini's finest operas.