Love for Sale, in Massenet's 'Manon'

ACT ONE begins in the courtyard of an inn. Two wealthy men, Guillot and Brétigny, are at the table with their three female companions, Rosette, Javotte, and Poussette. They're all complaining loudly about the service, and generally behaving like arrogant, obnoxious rich folks -- which is what they are.

Before long a coach arrives. As townspeople assemble to gawk at the travelers, a young man named Lescaut steps forward to greet his 15-year-old cousin, Manon. She's on her way to a convent, where she was sent by her parents for being "overly fond of pleasure." The crowd is stunned by her beauty. Manon is a country girl, and she's a bit overwhelmed by her first trip away from home.

Lescaut greets her, and when he leaves to retrieve her baggage, Guillot sees her and immediately has lust on his mind. He makes a pass at Manon, even offering money for her favors. She turns him down, but before he leaves Guillot ostentatiously tells her his coach and driver will stand by to take her anywhere she wants.

Alone, Manon sees wealth all around her, and regrets that she'll be locked away from these pleasures in the convent. By this point, Massenet has introduced a pair of musical themes, representing Manon's beauty, and her innocence. As the drama progresses, it has everything to do with her beauty, but less and less to do with innocence.

Then, a moment of decision arrives. The young man Des Grieux is waiting for his father's coach to take him home. But when he catches sight of Manon, he's immediately infatuated. She tells him her family is packing her off to a convent. He decides Manon is just the kind of girl he's been looking for, and offers her another choice. She can go with him -- to Paris. This sounds fine to Manon, and she knows just how to get there. Guillot's coach and driver are still waiting. Manon and Des Grieux hop in, and they're off to gay Paree.

Some time passes, and ACT TWO takes place in the modest Paris apartment where the two have taken up housekeeping. Des Grieux knows that his father is upset by this arrangement, so he's writing dad a letter about the fine young woman who has come into his life, and how happy she's made him. He says he intends to marry her. Manon is touched by the letter -- but she's not so sure she wants to get married. She's even less sure she wants to spend her life in low-rent apartments.

A maid announces the arrival of two guests. One is Manon's cousin, Lescaut. The other is a soldier. Manon realizes this soldier is her wealthy admirer Brétigny, in disguise.

While Lescaut and Des Grieux argue about the Lescaut family honor, Brétigny tells Manon that Des Grieux's father has arranged for his son to be abducted that very night. Brétigny also tells her that with Des Grieux out of the picture, he can offer her a life of wealth and pleasure.

When Brétigny and Lescaut leave, Des Grieux goes to mail his letter. Manon sings a farewell to the apartment they've shared. Shortly after Des Grieux returns, there's a knock at the door. Manon knows it's the abductors. She unconvincingly tells her lover not to answer the knocks, but gives him no reason. So he goes to the door, and is quickly dragged away.

The first scene of ACT THREE takes place on a Sunday, in a crowded park in Paris, where Manon's cousin Lescaut is spending money hand over fist. Manon is also there, with Brétigny, and she's obviously enjoying his wealth, if not his company. She’s dressed to kill, and fishing for compliments at every turn -- which makes Brétigny extremely jealous. He's willing to do just about anything to keep her. Now he bristles when Guillot remarks that Brétigny might soon lose Manon to someone who's willing to indulge her a little more freely.

Manon is obviously pleased with her current opulent circumstances, but she still thinks of Des Grieux. So when she sees Brétigny talking to Des Grieux's father, the Count, she eavesdrops. The Count says that his son has decided to become a priest. He'll be giving his first sermon late that very day, at St. Sulpice.

Manon would like to think that Des Grieux is still in love with her. So she approaches the Count. Thinking he has no idea who she is, she says she's heard that his son decided on the priesthood only after having his heart broken. She wonders out loud if he still thinks of the woman who broke it. The Count knows exactly who she is, and says no; his son has gotten over "that woman" completely. Unhappy that Des Grieux might actually have forgotten her, Manon orders her coachman to take her to St. Sulpice, where the next scene takes place.

Outside the church, when Des Grieux finishes his sermon, his father congratulates him. The Count says now that the young man is taking life seriously, he'll be receiving his full inheritance. The Count leaves for home, and Des Grieux goes inside. Manon then arrives, and asks to see Des Grieux. While she waits, she knows she's about to seduce a man who's on the verge of priesthood. She prays for forgiveness, and seems to long for a more pious life. But she also seems to know that piety will never be her strong suit. When Des Grieux appears, he denounces her for infidelity. She admits she's been faithless, but begs him to forgive her. To one of the opera's most famous melodies, Manon brings up memories of their passionate past, and she wins his heart one more time.

In ACT FOUR, Manon and Des Grieux are back together, living on his inheritance -- and they've been living in style. But now the money is almost gone, and they've come to a casino, where Manon thinks they might solve their cash-flow problems. Manon's cousin Lescaut is also there, along with Guillot, who is more than willing to spend his money on Manon. Guillot challenges Des Grieux to a game. Des Grieux is reluctant, but Manon urges him on. She reminds him that "their" money has almost run out. She also makes it clear that when the money is gone, she will be, too. So the game goes on.

Des Grieux wins, and wins again, and keeps winning until Guillot accuses him of cheating. Des Grieux denies the charge, but Guillot leaves and returns with the police. He demands that the cheater and his accomplice, Manon, be arrested. Des Grieux's father also shows up, and does nothing to stop the arrest. He figures he can get his son off the hook, but there will be nobody to stand up for Manon. She'll be jailed, and the two will be separated once and for all. So as the Count looks on, Manon and Des Grieux are both hauled away.

ACT FIVE takes place on the road to the port city of Le Havre. Des Grieux has been released, and he's at the roadside waiting for Manon, along with her cousin Lescaut. Manon was convicted of prostitution, and now she's being taken to Le Havre to be deported.

When soldiers escorting Manon appear on the road, Lescaut bribes their commander, who leaves him alone with his cousin. In turn, Lescaut leaves her with Des Grieux, and the lovers are together for one last time. Manon's spirit is broken, and she's gravely ill. She begs for Des Grieux's forgiveness, and as they're both remembering happier times, she dies in his arms.