"I'm called Manon Lescaut" – the Motif
About halfway into Act I, des Grieux meets a beautiful teenage girl and asks her name. Her reply, Track 14, is simple, sad, and soon to be iconic, as Puccini brings it back again and again, recalling Manon at her moment of innocence and possibility.
In Track 15, with the same melancholy strain, she tells des Grieux the fate she believes to be hers.
Track 24 is taken from “Donna non vidi mai,” the aria with which des Grieux expresses his deep, instant attraction to Manon. Not only does he twice sing Manon’s declaration, but the orchestra echoes the melody as well. ese seven notes come to stand for everything pure, sweet, and lovely about Manon.
In Track 25, Manon is about to keep a pre-arranged second meeting with des Grieux. e orchestra heralds the rendezvous by repeating the central melody of “Donna non vidi mai.” But listen carefully: the last four notes before Manon appears are the fi rst four of that introductory theme, four notes doing the work of seven.
Track 26 comes from Act II. Left alone to finish dressing, Manon exclaims “I’ll be the most beautiful!” Puccini condenses her theme, originally seven notes long, then four, to only two notes, now in a minor key. He thereby effi ciently reminds us how much Manon has changed, just as des Grieux shows up in her chambers and she calls him “mio immenso amore” (my great love).
The tragic Act IV begins with three ominous tones, repeated for chilling emphasis—Track 27. Pay attention to the second and third notes of the phrase. It’s that two-note condensation of Manon’s theme—now bleaker than ever. It’s as if the entire orchestra were crying, like des Grieux, “Oh, Manon!”
And just in case a dry eye remains in the house at Manon’s death, the cry goes up again in Track 28, bringing the opera to a close with the shortest possible motif, dense with sadness and meaning.