So here’s the story. (Think early eighteenth century France, big pouffy dresses for the ladies, tight britches for the guys.) In a tavern in Amiens, where carriages change horses, young people are singing and laughing and gambling and drinking. Enter a party of three: beautiful young woman of eighteen, destined for the nunnery; her brother (or cousin, depending on whose translation of the libretto you go with), escorting her there at the behest of their father; and rich lustful old geezer (who just happened to share the carriage and immediately hankers for beautiful young woman).
Handsome impoverished (but well born and well dressed) student, name of Des Grieux, disporting himself with friends, spies beautiful young woman and falls instantly in love. “Your name?” he inquires. “Manon Lescaut, mi chiamo,” she replies in Italian, because (despite eighteenth-century France) this is a Puccini opera — with typically glorious Puccini music to less glorious tinkering by Puccini himself with the already somewhat silly story by Abbe Prevost on which the libretto is based.
Meanwhile, lustful old geezer has secretly paid tavern keeper for a swift carriage to Paris for a man and woman. (No names are mentioned.) He is thinking himself and Manon, whom he plans to abduct. However, he is overheard by a friend of Des Grieux, who promptly informs Des Grieux of the availability of this free transportation. Des Grieux invites beautiful young Manon to run away with him to Paris. She demurs, but without real conviction. He tries again. As between the nunnery and a handsome (though poor) young man of good birth who she’s just met, what do you suppose she chooses this time? And off they go. End of Act I.
Puccini decided to skip the short period of impecunious happiness shared by the hapless lovers in favor of opening Act II in the luxurious bedroom of lustful old geezer. We learn that between acts, Manon soon tired of Parisian happiness without money and has run off, without a word to Des Grieux, to place herself under the geezer’s “protection.” Now she has gorgeous gowns, a fortune in glittering jewelry, servants galore, but life feels cold without love. After she has sung about that, Des Grieux bursts in. Manon’s brother (or cousin) has tipped him off as to her whereabouts. He is understandably wounded by her preference for worldly wealth. She assures him she really loves only him, despite the near-irresistible appeal of bling. They blend their voices in a practically orgasmic duet. (You can hear it on YouTube, sung by a young passionate Placido Domingo and Renata Scotto, not really able to pass for eighteen any longer but a great singer.) Lustful old geezer find them together and rushes off for the police. Des Grieux urges Manon to flee with him; she agrees but wastes too much time gathering up her jewels, and is arrested for prostitution — lustful old geezer’s revenge. She is hauled off to jail, to await deportation with other prostitutes to New Orleans.
I will make haste now. In Act III, we are first at the jail and then at Le Havre, where the police are loading prostitutes one by one onto a transatlantic sailing ship. When they call Manon’s name and she emerges, still in her expensive pouffy gown, there are gasps from the crowd at her beauty. Someone explains she was “seduced.” Poverina! Des Grieux, who has followed Manon, hoping to protect her, can’t stand the idea of never seeing her again and persuades the captain to take him on as cabin boy so that he can sail to America to be with her.
Act IV is just the lovers, alone in the desert outside New Orleans. (Puccini and his four other librettists had a shaky grasp of Louisiana geography.) They have left New Orleans, where things were difficult for them, to reach a British colony. Don’t ask why. Alas, they didn’t think to bring water with them. Their clothes are in tatters. Manon is fading fast and cannot go farther. She collapses, perhaps of thirst, and urges Des Grieux to leave her while he tries to find help. He does go, but returns, unsuccessful. While he is gone, she regrets her past at some length (despite the thirst). On his return, they sing of their love for each other. You might say it has taken the whole opera to get us to this point, but oh, is it ever worth it! She sings she doesn’t want to die, he sings he doesn’t want to lose her, their voices blend, she sings there isn’t much time left so he should kiss her, he sings and does kiss her, their lips meet, she yields to death and expires in his arms, he falls upon her body with strangled sobs.
Last Saturday morning, I sat with twenty-three other people sixty and older at a three-hour presentation of all this, with lecture and projections of past performances recorded on DVD. The presentation was provided by Westminster Choir College in preparation for a trip to New York next Saturday to see a live Met production of Manon Lescaut. Although we had all been gently chuckling at the absurdities of the plot as it unravelled, by the time the lecturer turned up the lights at the end of Act IV there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, and some of us actually had tears running down our cheeks.
People who don’t like opera don’t seem to understand what it can do for us. Yes, the plots are usually silly. Yes, it may be an acquired taste. But without pontificating about its power to move us deeply with heart-rending music and fine anguished voices despite story lines that test the limits of belief, I would just ask a few questions about the cathartic power of Manon Lescaut in that roomful of senior citizens last Saturday. Even when our meaningful world begins to shrink, sometimes (as in the opera) only to you and one other person, who really wants to die? Who wants to lose a beloved partner? Who are our tears really for?