Manon by Massenet is characterized by a mosaic structure which unites the most diverse musical genres, with a versatile range of styles, going from frivolous and mundane themes to an introspective lyricism ending in tragedy. However, what makes this score united is Massenet's ability to use a vocal style adherent to the spoken language and to sketch social environments and the different personalities of the characters through common themes. For example, for the protagonist, the music merges to her changeable mood, going from showing mere coquetry to the passion typical of a woman in love. The structure of the opera itself, which has aspects of the opèra-comique, with spoken dialogue which Massenet then turned into recitatives when he realized the opera would have been performed outside France, indicates the composer's will to create the benchmark of a new idea of French opera of the nineteenth century. Manon is, in fact, the symbol of this new idea of opera and its success was never put at stake, even after Puccini's version. Massenet felt very close to this opera from the very beginning, so much that ten years after, he put in music a short one act opera called Le portrait de Manon.
Amiens, France, end of the 19th century. Lescaut is waiting for his young cousin, Manon, who is about to enter a convent.The girl is joyful for her first trip away from home. The noblemen de Brétigny and Guillot de Morfontaine are dining with three young actresses nearby and Guillot, fascinated by the girl, offers to take her to Paris. Lescaut urges her not to compromise the name of their family.The young Chevalier des Grieux arrives too late to catch the coach to Paris, which has already left. He falls in love with Manon at first sight and he manages to convince her to escape together in Guillot’s coach. When Lescaut finds out, he is furious and accuses Guillot of having kidnapped the cousin, but then discovers that Manon left with a young man.
Paris. Des Grieux writes to his father to ask permission to marry Manon. Visitors arrive to their apartment: they are Lescaut and another man, who is de Brétigny in disguise. Lescaut, using the argument of family honor offended, accuses des Grieux for having abducted Manon. In fact he is trying to profit himself by setting her up with de Brétigny. Des Grieux, to prove his good intentions shows the letter to his family. Meanwhile, de Brétigny tells Manon that des Grieux’s father is planning to kidnap his own son that evening. So he offers her to leave with him instead and have wealth and luxury all her life. After, des Grieux goes out to post his letter and Manon understands she can't resist de Brétigny’s offer. Later that evening there’s a knock on the door and when des Grieux answers it, he is carried off in his father’s coach.
Manon is now living with de Brétigny in Paris. During a public holiday at the Cours-la-Reine, she hears that the des Grieux, after an unhappy love affair, is about to become a priest and, later that day, will preach at the seminary of St. Sulpice. Manon leaves the festivities to go find him. There's a large crowd at St. Sulpice for des Grieux's sermon. The Count tries to dissuade his son from entering the priesthood but des Grieux is sure he can’t forget Manon. When she arrives, he confronts her and she admits her guilt and asks for forgiveness. Des Grieux decides to renounce his vows.
Manon and des Grieux arrive at the Hôtel de Transylvanie, where many gamblers are gathered. Among them, there are Guillot and Lescaut. Manon reminds des Grieux that his fortune has nearly run out but he accepts Guillot’s challenge to play. Des Grieux wins a lot of money and Guillot accuses him of cheating, saying to tell the Count about it. The police arrive and des Grieux is arrested and Manon too as his accomplice.
Manon has been sentenced to deportation to America. Des Grieux and Lescaut have come up with a plan to rescue but they need the accomplices whom they had paid and who have deserted them. Lescaut bribes the guards at least to leave Manon and des Grieux alone together. She asks him for forgiveness for the shame she has brought on him and his family but des Grieux keep thinking about the future that still awaits them together. However, Manon is ill and when the rescue comes, it is too late and she dies in his arms.