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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Opéra Comique in five acts and six tableaux 

Manon……………………………Angela Gheorghiu

Le Chevalier Des Grieux……… Roberto Alagna

Lescaut…………………………..Earle Patriarco

Le Comte Des Grieux ………….. José Van Dam

Guillot de Morfontaine…………. Gilles Ragon

De Brétigny…………………… Nicolas Rivenq

Pousette………………………….Anna Maria Panzarella

Javotte……………………………Sophie Koch

Rosette………………………… Susanne Schimmack
Orchestre Symphonique et Choeurs de la Monnaie Conducted by Antonio Pappano
EMI 3CDs CDS5 57005 2 [163:07]

This is the fourth opera set from the Pappano/Gheorghiu/Alagna team and the second opera by Massenet (they recorded Werther in 1999 review). Whereas Werther is rather a gloomy affair, Manon is full of glitter and sensuality, brimming with joie de vivre. Both operas, in their very different ways, are about a tragic love. Of course, Puccini also wrote an opera on exactly this subject - Manon Lescaut - but whereas Massenet has his Manon pay for her hedonistic ways by expiring on the road to Le Havre, Puccini takes her to Louisiana before he allows her to die. It is interesting to note that in Nicolai Gedda's recently published autobiography (reviewed on this site in September 2000), he says that he prefers the Massenet opera of the two. It is easy to see why. Massenet's opera teems with lovely melodies

Pappano has clearly spent a lot of time in preparation for this set, in choosing the Orchestre Symphonique et Choeurs de la Monnaie he has ensured that he is supported with an ensemble with which he is familiar; and, more importantly, which is au fait with the French operatic idiom and that of Massenet in particular. The result is a magnificent sparkling performance beautifully paced, with Alagna and Gheorghiu on top form leading an impressive supporting cast.

The opening scene of Act I, in the courtyard of the hotel in Amiens sets the overall mood. It is a vibrant and bracing atmosphere as the crowd awaits the arrival of the coach that brings Manon. And there is no mistaking that this is Manon's opera for Massenet most clearly favours his heroine - and Gheorghiu responds wonderfully to her every expressive opportunity and colours her voice accordingly. In her first Act I aria, 'I'm still completely dizzy…', she is the bewildered innocent on the way to life as a nun, awed by her first coach trip but also showing us something of her love of the good life. We are left in no doubt that it would not take much to seduce her away from the cloth. Gheorghiu phrases this florid coloratura aria beautifully. In Act II, she poignantly bids farewell to the little table and all that has been familiar to Des Grieux and herself in their little Paris love nest when she realises she must leave Des Grieux otherwise his father will disinherit him. In totally different mood, her famous Act III Gavotte song is passionately hedonistic as she capriciously, coquettishly urges everyone to make the most of their youth, for spring does not last forever. Later in the act she fervently reaffirms her love for Des Grieux as, at Saint Sulpice, she successfully seduces him away from his intent to follow the religious life as an Abbé. This whole scene is superb as the drama between the two lovers is played out while the choir sings their devotions in the background. In Act IV, Manon is the temptress persuading Des Grieux to gamble away his inheritance. Her lust and greed is apparent in 'This sound of money, this laughter and these joyous outbursts…' After Des Grieux is a falsely accused of cheating, he and are on the run and the last Act finds Des Grieux and Lescaut trying to rescue her from the tumbrils taking her to Le Havre but it is too late she is dying. Her last duet with Des Grieux , 'Oh Manon!…Manon! You are crying…', with Massenet introducing yet another beautiful tune, is a glorious conclusion to the opera

Alagna is an ideal Des Grieux. When he first sees Manon (Act I) he is captivated immediately. A sweetly ecstatic violin solo singing above an orchestra transported to another world, comments as he sings 'Good Heavens! Is this a dream…I'm no longer my own master'. Alagna has just the right crack in his voice to show the sincerity and intensity of his emotions. His subsequent duet with Manon, as they realise they are falling in love and must elope together from her intended religious life and the lascivious attentions of Guillot and Brétigny, is another highlight of this glorious first act. His little pianissimo reverie when he daydreams of a humble little retreat for himself and Manon in Act II is lovingly phrased. At Saint Sulpice, when he is about to solemnise his commitment to God, he poignantly, fervently seeks oblivion from the painful memories of Manon. At the Hotel Transylvania he so convincingly declares, in loving exasperation 'Manon! Manon! You are like an astonishing sphinx, a veritable siren!' as she persuades him to gamble everything.

Earle Partriaco is splendid as the self-important, arrogant and until the last act unfeeling Lescaut, so too is Gilles Ragon as the deluded ass Guillot de Morfontaine teased beyond forebearance by the three girls, Pousette, Javotte and Rosette (their parts delightfully and amusingly sung, for the most part in unison). Nicolas Rivenq makes a good vindictive De Brétigny and I must single out for special praise José Van Dam in the role Le Comte des Grieux who is excellent in the scene in Saint Sulpice when he gently urges his wayward son to settle down with a suitable wife rather than take the cloth. This is a strikingly conceived passage as it moves from dialogue to mélodrame, to arioso and back again. Also I would like to mention Massenet's amusing opening to this scene set for women's chorus, 'What eloquence' in which women, coming out of the seminar chapel, twitter about the new Abbé elect - in terms which suggest that they are more interested in his more earthly charms. The music engagingly alternates between the secular and the liturgical. This is just one delight in an opera that brims with such; alas space forbids mention of them all.

This scintillating opera set that will be making repeated visits to my CD player

Ian Lace

Reviews from previous months

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