Manon Lescaut springs to life with an orchestral prelude barely two minutes long, fizzing, skipping, chattering with no hint of the darkness ahead. It’s music of youth and optimism. Students – synonymous with young men when Abbé Prévost’s original story was written in 1731 – flirt with women hardly out of girlhood. ‘Youth is your name, and hope is our goddess,’ they sing, in the opera’s first great outburst of melody. ‘Give your lips, give your hearts to bold youth!’

Puccini was in his early thirties, clinging on to his own youth but striding towards artistic maturity when he wrote Manon Lescaut, which premiered in Turin in 1893. His first operas, Le Villi and Edgar, had enjoyed mixed success. Here, at last, was an unequivocal triumph, despite tortuous problems with the libretto – a work of many hands – and initial reservations from his publisher, Giulio Ricordi. Commercially anxious, Ricordi had tried to deter Puccini from choosing a novel already set to music by others, notably Massenet in Manon (sensibly shortening Prévost’s title, L ’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut). Massenet’s 1884 opera was popular in France but hadn’t yet been seen in Italy.

Puccini treated the overlap with indifference. His famous response has a certain playboy swagger: `Why shouldn’t there be two operas about Manon? A woman like Manon can have more than one lover’. He may have had endless troubles with his librettists – a difficulty throughout his career – but in life, Puccini was used to following his own desires. You can guess that from surviving photographs of him: a man dandyishly smart, a gaze unnervingly direct, arms folded or hand leaning defiantly on a cane. As part of his defense, he used his national identity: ‘Massenet feels [Manon Lescaut] as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion.’ 

The bright prelude forgotten, desperate passion surges through Manon Lescaut like hot blood, from the moment the teenage heroine and the young Chevalier Des Grieux fall in love – prompting a shattering lyrical outpouring of the kind which would soon find ripe bloom in La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Des Grieux’s Act I aria, ‘Donna non vidi mai’ (I’ve never seen a woman like her) has all the heartfelt exuberance of those later operas. Having propelled the drama into motion, Puccini permits no let-up in tension from the original Act I setting of Amiens right through to the end of the opera when the doomed couple, ‘poorly clad and dead with fatigue’, find themselves on an ‘endless plain’ on the borders of New Orleans.

The opera has never had quite the same box office allure as Puccini’s best-known masterpieces. Is there something about the characters we resist? The heroine is 18 years old, about to go into a convent, a coquettish beauty who already has a past. Even as Des Grieux tentatively asks her name, Puccini’s music tells us he is already love-struck.

Those chirpy, angular woodwind melodies have vanished, replaced by a soaring, throbbing string tune. Des Grieux pours out his feelings at length. By contrast, Manon speaks little: I’m Manon, I’m leaving tomorrow for the cloister; my brother is calling me; I’ll meet you after dark.

By the end of the act, Manon and Des Grieux have eloped. In their impassioned duet, we detect pre-echoes of the celebrated love scene in Act I of La bohème, premiered three years later. The similarities are striking. ‘Manon Lescaut mi chiamo’ (I’m called Manon Lescaut) becomes ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’ (I’m called Mimì). Des Grieux’s sudden love for Manon is rivalled in power, intensity and immediacy by Rodolfo’s hopeless ardour for the poor, frozen-handed Mimì, rapidly established in the fumbling moments it takes to lose a key and extinguish a candle.

Whereas Massenet’s opera devotes an entire act to the lovers’ time in Paris, Puccini keeps the action brutal and lean, dealing with that episode in a few words at the close of Act I. Manon will soon tire of living with a penniless student. She’ll want a palace, warns her cynical, wastrel brother Lescaut, scarcely able to look up from the gaming table. So much for love.

He’s right, of course. By the time the curtain rises for Act II, Manon has fled poverty and passion, favouring the ‘fatherly affection’ of wealthy Geronte and the attendant luxuries. It’s a shocking exchange. Modestly expressive in Act I, Manon is now full of prattle, entirely about herself and her appearance, calling for curling tongs, pencilled eyebrows, perfume and rouge. Needless to say, she’s already bored. Luckily Des Grieux – decent, devoted, slave and victim – is willing to take her back. ‘I can’t resist, oh temptress,’ he admits, yielding helplessly.

Their reunion is sweetly loving, hot, desperate. ‘Manon desires only you,’ she tells him. Has she learned how to love selflessly, at last? Alas not quite. Needing to escape, the old man having caught the lovers together, she wastes precious time bewailing the loss of that other necessity, her jewels. In every sense her brother’s sister, she can’t help putting luxury first. It makes you want to spank her.

Yet Puccini has a soft spot, present in every bar of the score, for his minx of a heroine. As Act II ends, when Manon drops her smuggled jewels in fright at the moment of arrest (serves her right), Puccini provides a masterly instrumental Intermezzo. It acts as a poetic, dramatic transition from a life of brittleness and opportunism to one of true love hard-won, and of loss. Solo strings, resonant with violas and cellos, convey new despair and loneliness.

Puccini had heard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Parsifal in Bayreuth. His influence is audible in Puccini’s extraordinary outburst of desolate yearning.

The last two acts, condensed and pithy, ineluctably tighten their grip. Caked in mud, in chains, paraded with prostitutes, Manon has become a pitiable object of public curiosity. Lescaut, still full of his old bribes and tricks, sees the pathos of his sister’s situation but remains an ambivalent, unsympathetic figure. Des Grieux, the only constant figure in the entire opera – his fidelity sorely challenged – insists on accompanying Manon to America. Frail and sick, she shows dignity at last. One of the final stage instructions in the opera describes her as speaking ‘with her last strength, imperiously’. She won’t give in.

As we listen, ears led by the generosity of Puccini’s music, our own hearts find forgiveness and sympathy. Manon’s foibles are human. A girl with no prospects beyond her own delicious charms, her only crime is expediency. She grows into womanhood through humiliation, courage and, degradated and ill, honesty. ‘Oblivion will carry away my faults, but my love will never die,’ she utters, as the curtain falls.