16 Mar 2008


Manon: Opéra comique in 5 acts and 6 tableaux

Jules Massenet (1842-1912), composer. Henri Meilhac and Phillipe Gille, librettists.

First performance: 19 January 1884 at the Opéra-Comique, Paris.


When it comes to opera, the French have tended to be conservative and insular. It took the Italian Lully to establish the genre in the French court. Following his death, it degraded to such a state that philosophers, such as Rousseau, seriously argued that the French language was unsuited for melody. It took other foreigners, such as Gluck, Rossini and Meyerbeer, to reenliven opera and to secure its place in France, most notably Paris. The success of Bizet’s Carmen, however, marked a watershed. Filled with fantastic melody, drama, and, above all, earthy realism, Bizet changed the course of French opera, particularly the style practiced at the Opéra-Comique.

Jules Massenet (1842-1912) followed Bizet’s lead with works marked by their lyricism, eroticism and extravagance. His adaptation of Prévost’s Manon Lescaut proved to be such a success, Massenet was considered the most important French composer of operas during the closing decades of the 19th Century. More importantly, Manon remains in the standard repertoire to this day.

Despite being based upon one of the greatest works in French literature, Massenet and his librettists, Henri Meilhac and Phillipe Gille, departed significantly from Prévost’s plot and character development. Massenet gives us a Manon that is frivolous, impetuous and brainless, not the craven schemer shaped by des Grieux’s narrative. Indeed, Manon is more like Verdi’s Violetta than Prévost’s Manon. Similarly, des Grieux is reduced to an absurdly pathetic figure deprived of reason because of his love for Manon, not the ruthless sociopath realized by Prévost.

Nevertheless, Massenet produced a masterpiece. The music, instrumental and vocal, is inspired. Manon’s aria “Obéissons quand leur voix appelle”—Massenet’s answer to “Sempre libera”—is but one of several showpieces from this opera. Note the spoken dialogue between arias, which is characteristic of opéra comique.


The Chevalier Des Grieuxtenor
The Count Des Grieuxbass
Lescaut (Manon's cousin)baritone
Guillot de Morfontaine, a noblemantenor
De Brétigny, a tax-collectorbaritone
Two Guardsmantenor, bass
Porter of the Seminary
Manon Lescautsoprano


Act I

Manon, a beautiful young woman, arrives at an inn in Amiens to meet her cousin Lescaut, who will take her to a convent according to the wishes of her father, who wants to amend her worldly and extrovert character. Manon does not share her father's wishes, and after being courted by an older man, Guillot, she falls in love at first sight with Des Grieux, a young man passing through the town, and they both escape to Paris in Guillot’s coach.

Act II

The young couple live their love story in a very modest home in Paris. Des Grieux writes a letter to his father asking for his consent to marry Manon. But Manon’s cousin and his friend Brétigny arrive and say that the father is going to have Des Grieux arrested; Manon believes this and succumbs to the proposals of Brétigny, who offers her a life of luxury in Paris.


Manon lives with Brétigny. She is already a well-known figure in the frivolous Parisian nightlife. Manon hears Des Grieux's father say that his son is not in prison, but so desperate after being left by Manon that he wants to become a priest. Then she decides to go to the abbey to seek him. Des Grieux tries to stand his ground, but finally Manon convinces him and he runs into her arms again. They return to Paris.

Act IV

Manon and Des Grieux have no money, so she forces him to gamble to obtain some. He finally wins, but Guillot accuses him of cheating, and in revenge he orders his arrest under the accusation of stealing, and Manon’s detention as an accomplice. At that time Des Grieux’s father arrives, who hopes this arrest will turn his son away from immoral and disreputable life. He promises to release him, but says he will have no mercy on Manon.

Act V

Des Grieux and Lescaut go to Le Havre, where Manon will embark to be deported, along with some prostitutes. Des Grieux and Lescaut try to assault the police and rescue Manon, but Des Grieux learns that she is ill. Then he tries to bribe a policeman so he can see her, promising to bring her back later. Des Grieux promises Manon that he will be able to rescue her, but she is seriously ill and cannot escape with him. Ashamed and full of remorse, she makes an apology for having made him unhappy and repents from her frivolity and light-heartedness. Manon dies. Des Grieux falls desperately on the lifeless body of his beloved.

[Synopsis Source: Asociación Bilbaína de Amigos de la Ópera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

Click here for a summary of Abbé Prévost's Manon Lescaut