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Jules Massenet


Manon Lescaut by Abbe Prevost

Manon Lescaut, in full Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, sentimental novel by Antoine-François, Abbé Prévost d’Exiles (1697-1763), published in 1731 as the last installment of Prévost’s seven-volume opus Mémoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité qui s’est retiré du monde (1728–31; “Memories and Adventures of a Man of Quality Who Has Retired from the World”). The work concerns the downward progress of the chevalier des Grieux, a young seminary student of noble birth. An ambiguous mixture of disinterested passion and shabby criminality, it relates how des Grieux, a young scapegrace but also a man of the most exquisite sentiment, sacrifices himself to the amoral, delicate, and forever enigmatic courtesan Manon. In this tragic tale love conquers all, but it constantly needs vulgar money to sustain it. Prévost’s successful blending of traditional romance and sordid realism, together with his ambivalent characterization of the chevalier, made many consider the work a masterpiece.

The story was adapted for opera as Manon by Jules Massenet and as Manon Lescaut by Giacomo Puccini.

Illustrations from "Manon Lescaut" by Alastair 
Hans Henning Otto Harry Baron von Voigt (1887 – 1969), best known by his nickname Alastair, was a German artist, composer, dancer, poet, singer and translator.

Jules Massenet

MANON - Jules Massenet - Rolando Villazon & Natalie Dessay

Massnet - Manon (Netrebko, Villazón, Daza, Fischesser )

The Аbbe Antoine Frangois Prevost's semi-autobiographical novel Les aventures du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut supplied the inspiration for stage works by a number of distinguished composers. Before Massenet, Auber had made an opera of it and Наlevу a ballet. And after the present work, Puccini wrote an opera on the subject described in this book, and still later Massenet himself came back to the same theme in Le portrait de Manon—a one-act sequel that has never been very popular.

There is no question, however, about the popularity of Manon (a title which Massenet claimed he had copyrighted: the other operas are called Manon Lescaut). After Faust and Carmen it is the most popular French opera there is, both in and outside of France. It is also Massenet's most durable work, and one for which he felt a particular affection. Perhaps one reason is the lively personal attraction he seemed to feel for the character of the attractive and unfortunate heroine.

In his memoirs the composer tells two stories that seem to be to the point. The first has to do with the time when he was composing the score. On a walk, one day,he saw a florist’s assistant with sparkling eyes who, he imagined, was yearning for rich pleasures beyond her station. "There she is," he said to himself. “That is Manon.” And he goes on to tell how he kept the image of that girl in his mind during the entire composition of the score, even though he had never seen her before and never saw her again.

The other story has to do with casting the production. His first thought was of Mme. Miolan-Carvalho, the wife of his impresario and a fine artist. (She was the original Marguerite in Gounod's Faust.) However in 1884 she was fifty-six, too old to undertake the role of a fifteen-year-old girl. The gallant Massenet, intent on getting her into the picture somehow, dedicated the score to her.

Next he thought of a young soprano named Vaillant, to whom he showed parts of the score. Unfortunately, when the time came, she was appearing in an operetta, and her manager would not release her. But even while he was talking to the manager in the lobby of the theater, a familiar figure kept passing by, newly arrayed in a gorgeous hat (a gray one, with lots of roses on it).

“Heilbronn!” I cried (so go the memoirs).


‘You still sing?” I asked hen

“No, I am rich; and yet, shall I admit it to you? I miss the theatre. It haunts me. Ah, if I found a good part — !"

“I have one: Manon.”

“Manon Lescaut?”

“No, just Manoii. That tells the entire story.”


“Can I hear the music?”

""Whenever you like.”

That very night Massenet played and sang the score for her, finishing at half-past four in the morning. At its close the widely experienced but still youthful soprano was moved to very real tears. “It is my life,” she said. “But it is my life— that!"

That is how Marie Heubronn happened to be engaged to create the role. Her performance, like the opera itself, was an enormous success, but the soprano died after appearing m it some eighty times. Massenet was deeply grieved. "I preferred," he wrote, "to stop the performance rather than to see Manon sung by another.” 

The stoppage at the Орerа Comique was of considerable duration, for the theater burned down shortly afterward and did not revive Manon till ten years later. Meanwhile, it became a hit pretty much all over the world, and wnen the Орeга Comique did finally get back to it, it did so with a will. It has now had some two thousand performances at that theater alone and is still a staple of the repertoire.



Opera in five acts by Jules Massenet with libretto in French by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille, based on Antoine Frangois Prevost's novel Les aventures du Chevalier des Grieux

et de Manon Lescaut



LESCAUT, of the Royal Guard, her cousin




DE BRETIGNY, a nobleman 



Time: 18th century

Places: Amiens, Paris, and Le Havre

First performance at Paris, January 19, 1884


Manon Lescaut: 


Soprano. On her way to e convent, she stops off in Amiens where her cousin Lescaut is to meet her and escort her on the rest of her journey. At the inn where her stage-coach calls, she meets and tails in love with the Chevalier Des Grieux. At their home in Paris they are visited by the wealthy de Bretigny, who persuades Manon she will have a much more luxurious life if she departs with him. Living with him a life of wealth, Manon overhears the Comte Des Grieux telling de Вretignу that his son is about to take holy orders. Learning that he is preaching in Saint-Sulpice, she makes her way there. Des Grieux is unable to resist her and they run away together. They join her cousin and his friends in a gambling parlour, where Morfontaine, after losing heavily to Des Grieux, accuses him and Manon of cheating. They are arrested. Des Grieux is freed but Manon is to be deported as a prostitute. Lescaut and Des Grieux help her escape, but she dies in Des Gneux's arms. Aria: Adieu, notre petite table ('Farewell, our little table'). Created (1884) by Marie Heilbronn.

Renee Fleming - Manon - Massenet - Adieu notre petite table


Baritone. A member of die Royal Guards, cousin or Manon Lescaut whom he is to escort to a convent. However, she falls in love with Des Grieux and leaves with him to live in Paris. When she and her lover are arrested as cheat and prostitute, Lescaut effects their escape, but it is too late: Manon is dying. Created (1884) by Alexandra Taskin.

Count Des Grieux:  

Bass. Father of the Chevalier des Grieux. Tries to persuade his son, when deserted by Manon, not to enter holy orders. Created (1884) by Mons. Cobalet.

Chevalier Des Grieux:

Ten. Son of the Comte Des Grieux. Sees Manon and falls in love with her. He persuades her to abandon the idea of going to a convent and she agrees to go and live with him in Paris. She is coaxed away from their home by de Bretigny,who can give her a life of luxury. Des Grieux decides to enter holy orders. Manon comes to see him at the church where he is preaching. He tries to resist her, but in the end admits his love for her is as strong as ever and they run away together. They join friends in a gambling house, where Des Grieux is accused of cheating and he and Manon are arrested. Only the intervention of his father frees him, but Manon is to be deported. Des Grieux helps to rescue her, but her health has suffered and she dies in his aims. Aria: Ah, Fuyez douce image ('Ah, fly away, sweet image of love'). Created (1884) by Jean-Alexandre Talazac.

Roberto Alagna - Manon - Ah fuyez douce image

Guillot de Morfontaine:

Tenor. An old roué, attracted by Manon. Created (1884) by Mons. Grivot.


De Brétigny

Baritone A rich nobleman. He coaxes Manon away from Des Grieux with promises of the wealth and luxury he can offer her. Creator (1884) not traced.




Soprano. One of three ladies ‘of easy virtue)’, drinking companions of Morfontaine and de Brétigny. Created (1884) by Mlle Molé‐Truffier.



Soprano. One of three ladies ‘of easy virtue’ who are found drinking with Morfontaine and de Brétigny. Created (1884) by Mlle Chevalier.




Soprano. One of three ladies ‘of easy virtue’ who are found drinking with Morfontaine and de Brétigny. Created (1884) by Mlle Remy.



The first act takes place in a busy inn-yard in Amiens, France. A rich old fellow named Guillot and his younger companion, De Bretigny, are having themselves a fine time with three young women who are, clearly, no better than they should be. Among the crowd there is also a swaggering soldier named Lescaut, awaiting his teen-age cousin, Manon. The coach arrives, amid a great deal of bustle, and out sters pretty Manon. She is on her way to a convent, and Lescaut, who is seeing her for the first time in his life, is delighted with her sweet appearance and her pretty confusion, for she is making her first trip out into the world. While Lescaut sees to Manon's luggage, old Guillot tries to flirt with her. Though she laughs at him, he offers her the use of his private carriage. Lescaut interrupts this interview and tells Manon that she must guard the honor of the Lescaut family. As Lescaut goes off to gamble with some military buddies, she is left alone and sings a little aria (Voyons, Manon, plus de chimeres) telling us how much she would prefer learning more of the world to being immured in a convent.

Now, enter the hero—the handsome young Chevalier des Grieux. He sees Manon; she sees him; and they fall in love with a precipitancy that one finds only in the first acts of operas. At any rate, their love duet leaves no room in your mmd as to how they feel about each other. She sees Guillot's coach, and it is but the work of a minute for both of them to hop in and ride off, on the way to love—and to Paris. The act ends with the general confusion of everyone else when it is discovered that Manon and Des Grieux have eloped.


Manon and Des Grieux have now been living for some time in a small apartment in Paris. The second act opens as together they read a letter that the young man has just written to his father, the Count des Grieux. In it he describes the charms of Manon's personality and character, and he begs for permission to marry her. Before he can mail the letter, two оfficers force their way in. One is Manon’s blustering cousin, Lescaut, who fiercely demands to know whether Des Grieux intends to marry Manon. To prove his good intentions, the young lover shows Lescaut the letter he has just written his father. But while Lescaut reads, Lescaut's companion (who is De Bretigny in disguise) takes Manon aside. Apparently he Knows her quite well by this time and is more than half in love. He tells her that,on the Count des Grieux’s orders, her young lover is to be kidnaped this very evening. But she should not fear, for she will be taken care of very well—by himself. The scene—with Manon and De Bretigny on one side, and Lescaut and Des Grieux talking about the letter on the other side—results in a remarkable quartet.

When the two officers have left and Des Grieux has gone to mail the letter, Manon sings a sad little farewell to the table (Adieu, notre petite table), which has seen so much of her happy times with Des Grieux. And when the young man returns,he sings to her his dream—a quiet, intense, loving description of how they will live when they are married. Even this show of devotion does not inspire Manon to warn her lover of the plot to kidnap him.

And so, when there is a knock at the door, and Des Grieux is dragged out,her feeble cries of  “No! No!” come too late. Thus the little home is broken up.



Scene 1
The action now shifts to a busy square in the city of Paris, the Cours la Reine. Old Guillot is busily flirting and so is Lescaut as he sings a sentimental ditty (Ma Rosalinde). De Bretigny makes fun of Guillot, warning him not to try to steal Manon from him—which is exactly what the old fool resolves to do. Manon arrives on the scene and charms everyone with the famous Gavotte from Manon.


Soon the Count des Grieux enters, and Manon discovers from him that her former lover, the young Des Grieux, has entered the seminary of St. Sulpice, resolved to devote his life to the priesthood. Then Guillot comes back bringing with him the entire ballet company from the Орёга in an attempt to win Manon from De Bretigny. But she has no heart for the entertainment. As the curtain falls, she departs for the church of St. Sulpice—and Des Grieux.

Scene 2
The strains of the organ quietly transport us to a reception room in the church of St. Sulpice. Our hero, now the Abbe des Grieux, has just delivered ms first sermon, and everyone is praising him. The old Count des Grieux comes on a visit to his son to try to persuade him to leave the church, marry some respectable young lady, and settle down. But the young аЬЫ resolutely refuses, for he has resolved to forget Manon in the religious life, and the worldly old Count leaves his son with an ironical farewell. Des Grieux, however, finds it extremely difficult to forget Manon. He sings of this difficulty in the aria Ah! fuyez, douce image, in which he bids the memory of the beloved girl to leave him in peace.

Now a religious service begins. Manon slips into the room and, as off-stage sound the noble strains of a Magnificat, she prays earnestly for pardon and for reunion with Des Grieux. The second part of this prayer, at least, is successful. For when Des Grieux sees Manon, he at first tries to resist her. Her charms, her pleadings, and the memory of their past love are, finally, too much for his resolution. As the act closes, the two young people flee from the churchy.



In a luxurious—and notorious—Paris gambling hall known as the Hotel de Transylvanie, the guests include Lescaut (who is winning for a change), old Guillot, and his three charmers. Manon brings in her idealistic lover, Des Grieux, who is rather unhappy over being in such a disreputable resorts But she urges him to try his luck, and he does so, accepting the challenge of Guillot. Beginner's luck is with Des Grieux, and he keeps winning large sums, much to Manon's delights The old rascal thereupon accuses Des Grieux of cheating, and there is almost a fight. Guillot, however, departs, muttering a threat and soon returns with police оfficers. He points out Des Grieux and Manon as the guilty ones, and they are at once placed under arrest. At the crucial moment Count des Grieux enters, and a general ensemble follows,in which the son begs for mercy for himself and for his beloved Manon. The father tells his son that he will arrange to have mm freed later. But Manon, who knows the fate of women such as herself when they get into trouble, murmurs: "Ah! c'en est fait! je meurs." It is the end for her—and she is ready to die.


Manon has been sentenced to deportation to Louisiana, and Des Grieux, together with Lescaut, is waiting on the road to Le Havre to try to free her from the guards who are to take her to the ship. They overhear the guards singing in the distance. Then two of the soldiers come on, discussing one of their prisoners, who appears to be dying. It is Manon they are talking about. Lescaut manages to bribe these guards, and so Des Grieux and Manon are left discreetly alone to sing their final duet. Let them go together to a new country, says Des Grieux, and live a new and happy life. But Manon, who is half out of her mind with illness and repentance, can think only of the happy days they once had together. As night descends, Des Grieux urges her to flee with him, but it is too late. Slowly she becomes weaker and weaker.

As she is dying, cradled in her lover's arms, her last words are these: "Et c'est l'histoire de Manon Lescaut!" And that is the story or Manon Lescaut.

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