Generally, discussion of Manon Lescaut revolves around the tragic life of Manon herself. But what of des Grieux? Smitten from the moment he meets Manon, he seems incapable of overcoming his doomed love for her. Track 29 fi nds des Grieux late in Act II, trying to convince Manon that she must escape Geronte’s mansion. She’s just expressed her mixed feelings: she doesn’t want to leave all this wealth behind. His response carries all the devotion, understanding and frustration of des Grieux’s love, from its very fi rst words, “Ah, Manon, mi tradisce”—you betray me.
Note the melody with which des Grieux sings “Ah, Manon.” It recurs a few lines later, when he describes his beloved as “buona e gentile.” With the slightest transposition, the melody returns as des Grieux declares “Io? Tuo schiavo”—what am I but your slave? Puccini thereby uses the underlying melody to connect three concepts—Manon, her fundamental goodness, and the mysterious attraction she holds for men.
As des Grieux sings of “climbing down the ladder of infamy,” Puccini provides a musical analogy. The music descends haltingly from “la scala d’infamia” to “mi vendo”—I sell myself. After a brief orchestral comment, the “Ah, Manon”/”Tu schiavo” melody returns yet again, this time to project the “oscuro futuro”—the dark future—as des Grieux hits rock bottom. Once a man of action, he can no longer ask “what will I do,” but only “che farai di me”—what will you do to me?