France, the latter half of the 18th century. A broad square at the Paris Gate in Amiens is thronged by citizens out for an evening stroll. Students are having fun, wooing some young women. Among them is the carefree Edmondo – he sings a madrigal about the happiness of youth – and his friend, the thoughtful des Grieux, who remains distant from the general merriment. Asked whether or not he is in love, des Grieux responds that love is something as yet unknown to him, but, to play along with his friends, he jokes pleasantly with the girls.
A carriage draws up at the inn on the square, and from the carriage descend Manon, her brother Lescaut and their fellow-traveller Geronte, the Treasurer General. Des Grieux is staggered at Manon’s beauty. On speaking to her, he learns that her brother is taking her to a convent in accordance with their father’s wishes. They agree to meet once again when dusk falls. Meantime, Geronte has conceived a plan to abduct Manon in order to make her his lover. Having overheard the plot, Edmondo informs des Grieux of it and advises him not to tarry. Now the meeting between des Grieux and Manon quickly takes on new overtones, with just minutes passing from a declaration of love to a suggestion to flee together. Observing the carriage disappearing from sight, Geronte despairs, but Lescaut calms him, saying that “the student’s pocket will soon be exhausted”, and then Manon herself will abandon him in favour of the rich treasurer.
A room in the house of Geronte in Paris. As Lescaut had foreseen, Manon has become Geronte’s lover and is now living in luxury. And yet she recalls des Grieux, and when her brother calls to visit her she asks him about des Grieux. Lescaut informs her that he is now friends with him and has drawn him into playing cards, thus offering him a chance to become rich. The brother and sister’s talk is interrupted by musicians performing a madrigal in her honour. The reception that Geronte has planned to introduce Manon to his friends now begins; the dance master teaches her a minuet. The guests lustfully admire Manon, and she flirts back although she finds it unbearably wearisome. Geronte and his guests set out for a stroll, and Manon promises to join them later.
Des Grieux appears unexpectedly. He accuses Manon of being unfaithful, but she begs his forgiveness. Their passionate embraces are interrupted by the returning Geronte. In response to the old man’s reproaches, Manon shows him a mirror, after which he departs, threatening revenge.
Lescaut runs in. Having only just caught his breath, he announces that Geronte has gone to the police who will be arriving here any minute. Manon is prepared to flee with des Grieux, but first wants to grab her jewels. As she fusses, time is hopelessly lost: a sergeant appears. Manon is arrested.
Intermezzo Prison. The Road to Le Havre
All of des Grieux’ efforts – both appeals to the authorities and attempts to use force – have failed in having Manon released. He has taken the decision to follow her to the ends of the Earth.
A square at the harbour in Le Havre. Manon is to be exiled on a ship sailing to America. Lescaut has bribed the prison warder and attempts to organise her escape. In tense expectation, Manon and des Grieux have a brief meeting – this is interrupted by the merry song of the lamplighter. Judging by the commotion that can be heard but not seen, it is obvious that Lescaut’s plan has come to naught. The roll-call of the prisoners commences, and one by one they are conveyed onto the ship. Des Grieux begs the captain to take him aboard as a sailor so that he may depart with Manon, and the latter agrees.
A deserted place near New Orleans. The lovers are forced to flee following a conflict with the governor of the colony. Exhausted, they wander along the road. Manon is ill and can go on no further. Des Grieux sets off to find help, but he returns with nothing. Manon dies in his arms.