Act 1 — the courtyard of an inn in Amiens, France, 1721
An elderly nobleman, Guillot de Morfontaine, with his friend, Bretigny, has ordered dinner for three attractive Parisian actresses — Poussette, Javotte and Rosette. As they dine, the swaggering officer, Lescaut, comes to wait for his young cousin, Manon, who is arriving by stagecoach on her way to a convent. The excitement of the village onlookers indicates the arrival of the travelers. When Manon meets Lescaut, she describes the excitement of the journey. When Lescaut goes off to look for her baggage, Guillot tries to seduce the girl, offering his carriage, but she refuses him. Left alone, Manon reflects wistfully on the elegant life of Guillot’s companions, the three actresses. When the handsome Chevalier Des Grieux arrives, they meet and fall passionately in love. Taking Guillot’s coach, they leave for Paris together.
Manon and Des Grieux are happily living together in their Paris apartment, although she conceals the fact that an unknown admirer is sending her flowers. Lescaut and Bretigny arrive with urgent messages for the two lovers. Lescaut demands that Des Grieux formalize his relationship with Manon by marrying her. Meanwhile, Bretigny whispers to Manon that her lover is about to be kidnapped by men sent by his angry father. The elderly Des Grieux is upset by his son’s decision to live with a commoner. The younger Des Grieux leaves to mail a letter asking his father’s permission to marry Manon. Sadly, Manon bids farewell to the life they knew together. Returning, Des Grieux excitedly describes the life of happiness which awaits them as a married couple. A knock at the door interrupts them. As the door opens, the Chevalier is seized by his father’s henchmen and dragged away.
Act III, Scene One — a street in Paris
Amid a bustling holiday crowd, the three young actresses try to avoid their protector, Guillot. Manon, boasting of her dazzling beauty and elegance, arrives with her new lover — Bretigny. She overhears newly from the elderly Count Des Grieux, that her former lover, the Chevalier Des Grieux, is about to take holy vows to become a priest. Manon orders her cousin to direct her to Saint Sulpice, the nearby church where Des Grieux is studying.
Act III, Scene Two
Inside the dimly lit church, members of the congregation discuss the moving sermon of the reverent Abbé Des Grieux. Count Des Grieux, skeptical of his son’s newfound virtue, tries to persuade him to give up his life as a priest and marry some suitable girl. Rejecting his father’s advice, Des Grieux prays for strength to resist his memories of Manon. Her sudden arrival proves that she is still too fascinating to resist. In love again, they run off together.
Pleasure-seekers, including Guillot and the three young actresses, crowd the famous Parisian gambling house at the Hotel Transylvanie. Manon and Des Grieux arrive, seeking to improve their fortunes. While the Chevalier settles down to a game of cards with Guillot, Manon and the three girls toast their life of luxury. After losing every hand, Guillot angrily accuses Des Grieux of cheating and goes off to call the authorities. The police arrive with Des Grieux’s father, and arrest both Des Grieux and Manon.
Act V — on the road to the French port city of Le Havre
Using his influence with important officials, Des Grieux’s father manages to get his son out of jail. Since Manon is only a commoner, she has been imprisoned and sentenced to be deported to the colony of Louisiana. With Lescaut’s help, the Chevalier hopes to intercept the convoy of unfortunate women from the prison and rescue his beloved. Instead, he manages to speak to her after Lescaut bribes one of the guards. Exhausted, Manon falls into Des Grieux’s arms. She murmurs that now she can die in peace. Dreaming of their happiness, Manon dies in her lover’s arms. Des Grieux desperately tries to revive her, but it is too late.
Courtesy of Washington National Opera