Edmondo leads the merrymaking of a group of students. Des Grieux responds to taunts of being an unhappy lover by declaring that he knows nothing of love. He then serenades all the ladies present.
The coach from Arras arrives, and all—including Des Grieux—are struck by the beauty of Manon as she alights, accompanied by her brother Lescaut and the roué Geronte de Ravoir. The girl waits for Lescaut while he enters the inn to arrange for rooms. Des Grieux approaches her and asks her name. When he learns that she is on her way to a convent against her will, he begs her to meet him later to find a way to change her fate. Reluctantly she promises to return, then goes into the inn. Des Grieux admits to himself that he is already in love with her.
Lescaut confides to Geronte that he disagrees with his parents' plans for Manon, whom he is accompanying only out of a sense of duty. Geronte invites Lescaut and his sister to dinner, then excuses himself to talk with the innkeeper. Lescaut is soon drawn into a card game with the students. Edmondo overhears Geronte ordering a carriage and informs Des Grieux that the old man is planning to abduct Manon. She finds Des Grieux, having kept her promise. He tells her of the planned abduction. Edmondo returns, letting them know that everything is ready. The lovers escape in Geronte's carriage. He soon discovers what has happened and is mocked by the students, but Lescaut tells him to be patient: Manon's fondness for luxury will eventually make it possible to lure her away from Des Grieux.
Weeks later, now ensconced in Geronte's house, Manon is with her hairdresser, who is seeing to her elegant coiffure. Lescaut admires her, congratulating her on the splendor of her surroundings. Manon asks about Des Grieux, confessing that the luxuries of her new life have not brought her true happiness. Lescaut tells her that Des Grieux still adores her, and that he is gambling in the hope of increasing his fortune. If that happens, he will then be able to meet Manon among the fashionable habitués of the casinos. Manon is touched by Des Grieux's fidelity, but her pensive mood is interrupted by a group of musicians. A dancing master appears with Geronte and a group of gentlemen, who are led by Manon in a minuet.
Once Geronte has left to order a carriage, Des Grieux slips into the room. He angrily confronts Manon, who begs him to forgive her for deserting him. She finally breaks down his resistance. When Geronte surprises the two with his return, he reminds Manon that she is expected at a party. He leaves to wait for her in the carriage. Des Grieux plans to escape with Manon, but also reproaches her for her love of luxury. Lescaut bursts in to announce that Geronte has gone for the police. The three are about to leave when Manon pauses to collect her jewels. It is too late, for the police arrive and arrest her.
Intermezzo: The Journey to Le Havre
Des Grieux and Lescaut have bribed a guard to rescue Manon. While Des Grieux speaks to her through the prison window, Lescaut goes off to complete the necessary arrangements. A lamplighter passes, singing a cynical song. A shot rings out—Lescaut's plan has been foiled. The soldiers call the names of the women who are being deported. As Manon takes her place with the others, Des Grieux is overcome with grief at their separation. Despite warnings from the guards, he refuses to leave Manon's side. Finally he pleads with the ship's captain to join the crew, no matter how menial the position. The captain agrees, and Des Grieux rushes into Manon's arms.
With Des Grieux courageously supporting her, the exhausted Manon finds herself on a deserted plain in Louisiana. Uncertain whether to stay with her or to go search for help, Des Grieux finally rushes off. Alone, and no longer compelled to bolster her lover's spirits, Manon is overwhelmed by terror and despair. Once Des Grieux returns, she has only a few moments with him before she dies.
Courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago