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Comparative Reviews of Recordings of Manon Lescaut  by Ian Lace

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  1. Cast lists of all seven recordings reviewed plus one video
  2. An introductory article about Manon Lescaut


Act I

In the following four paragraphs the three oldest recordings will be considered: Perlea, Serafin and Bartoletti in the context of the unfolding story of the opera. Then the newer Sinopoli, Levine and Muti versions will be covered. This pattern will be followed through Acts II and III with all sets considered together for the brief Act IV. [The Naxos budget version, plus the Glyndebourne production video will be assessed separately].

Act I opens with a brief orchestral prelude. Perlea shines here (even in mono sound) with both gaiety and romance strongly pronounced. The curtain rises on a square in Amiens in Northern France at some time in the second half of the 18th Century. It is crowded with boisterous students and girls. Edmondo is teased for expressing poetic thoughts about the night, the stars and love in a madrigal. (Dino Formichini's Edmondo on the Serafin set impresses in a characterful interpretation, full of good humour and bonhomie and championing of young love, in this small but key role). Des Grieux arrives and cynically disdains love. But, he says to the girls if it pleases I will humour you and asks 'Tra voi, belle, brune e bionde…' (Among you, dark and fair beauties is there a pretty charming girl…who waits for me?). This Des Grieux aria is one of the most charming in the whole work, sounding fresh and innocent - and unsullied by the tawdry drama that is to follow. All the tenors impress: Bjoerling is simply marvellous, just the right balance of boasting and teasing in the voice, and such pleasing phrasing and dynamics; Domingo, in the Bartoletti set, is almost as impressive, and di Stefano's inclination to over- project can surely be forgiven because of the passion he brings to his singing.

A postilion's horn announces the arrival of the coach from Arras bringing Lescaut, a soldier, together with his sister Manon. Lescaut is escorting Manon to a convent where she is to begin a new life. Amongst the other passengers is an old rake, Geronte di Ravoir, a wealthy treasury official who has his eye on Manon. Puccini uses an orchestral interlude to paint a sound portrait of Manon, one that is both frivolous and sad. Perlea excels here closely followed by Bartoletti. When Des Grieux catches sight of Manon's beauty he is immediately smitten and to Edmondo's amusement he approaches her. Shyly he asks her name, expresses his admiration for her, and beseeches her to venture out of the inn to speak to him again once it is dark. Left alone Des Grieux sings, 'Donna non vidi mai simile a questa!' (Never have I seen such a woman!). Domingo expresses perfectly the wonder of falling in love shading his voice so eloquently, with the strings of the Philharmonia providing the sweetest of accompaniments. Bjoerling is ardent. The students tease Des Grieux who goes off in a huff leaving the stage for the machinations of the dissolute Lescaut to encourage the older Geronte to seduce Manon and make off with her. While Lescaut's attention is caught by a card game, Geronte bribes the innkeeper to have a coach and fast horses ready for him to make off with Manon to Paris. (Again Perlea excels in the dramatic tension he creates in the orchestra as it portrays Geronte's imagined desperate flight to Paris behind horses at full gallop!)

Edmondo overhears the dastardly plan and informs Des Grieux encouraging him to abscond with Manon himself. Manon appears as she promised and in the passionate duet that ensues, Des Grieux tells Manon that she is too pretty and too young to enter a convent and Manon coyly admits she will miss all life's gaiety and parties. Callas is especially convincing here in the subtle expressiveness of her singing and we become quickly aware that this knowing little girl is anything but lost! Montserrat is impressive too but in her lower register sounds rather too matronly. Di Stafano is a very passionate partner for Callas and Albanese strives valiantly to match the excellence of Bjoerling.

After the lovers have fled, Lescaut is philosophical and tells the enraged Geronte that Manon can still be his because she loves comfort and riches, and life with the poor student, Des Grieux, will soon pall for her. This sordid duet proceeds in counterpoint to a high spirited chorus that has the ironically prophetic lines - "Parched lips and full cup - wanted to drink and greedily sucked." All three Lescauts and Gerontes are well cast with Robert Merrill strong in the role but Giulio Fioravanti makes a particularly wheedling Lescaut and Noël Mangin an arrogant and coldy calculating Geronte.

Looking now at the more recent recordings: Sinopoli, Levine and Muti. The DG sound on the Sinopoli recording is luscious and the Philharmonia are very good especially accompanying des Grieux's aria, 'Donna non vidi mai'. Marco Berti's Edmondo on this set is very persuasive, with Ramón Vargas on the Levine set a close rival. Domingo's Des Grieux impresses even more on the Sinopoli set and Freni, as Manon, has a lovely tone. Her poignant "Una faniculla povera son io" (I am only a poor young girl) in her duet with Des Grieux as he persuades her to abscond with him is particularly affecting. But she is too, at this point, in the Levine recording with Pavarotti. Pavarotti simply overwhelms: marvellous clarity of diction, wonderfully smooth legato and shrewd characterisation. In his first aria, 'Tra voi, belle brune e bionde' he outshines all the competition, he is romantic, yet, at the same time, cocky and teasing; just exactly what is needed. And his absconding duet with Freni reaches a tremendous climax. José Cura as Des Grieux on the Muti set has the disadvantage to be compared with the greats: Domingo and Pavarotti. Cura though sensitive enough to his arias' line and direction, and nicely expressive - tender and warm and passionate - his timbre just does not have the same impact. His Manon, Maria Guleghina, is most pleasing, involved and conveying sincerely-felt emotion. Of the Lescauts I was most impressed with the oily machinations of Lucio Gallo on the Muti set.

Quality of orchestral colour and detail varies from moment to moment on each set. Muti's live performance impresses least. Sinopoli is erratic but Levine seems more consistently good with a nice balance in the opening pages between romance and high-spirits. I liked very much his deeper-than-most portrait of Manon revealing more subtleties, than most, of her complex character.

Act II

Manon has left Des Grieux for the comfort and riches of Geronte's house in Paris. Act II opens as she pampers herself in front of the mirror in her boudoir. Both Perlea and Serafin point up the sensuality and decadence of this scene and Callas revels in her luxury but when Lescaut enters he soon senses she is bored. She invites him to flatter her dress. But slyly and in an aria full of irony 'Ah, che insiem delizioso…' (Ah, how altogether delightful! You're splendid and radiant), he goes on to say how fortunate she is to have escaped her poor little love nest she shared with Des Grieux for this luxury but the orchestra's tenderness at the point "A miserable little cottage was your dwelling; you had kisses but no money!", tells us how much Des Grieux's love means to her. Merrill is particularly subtle here. Manon then confirms that this is so in her aria 'In quelle trine morbide…' (In those soft silken curtains…). She says there is a chill that cannot compensate or the 'voluptuous caress of ardent lips and arms' - Callas is deeply affecting as she lingeringly shapes the aria's last line "…a gentle dream of peace and love!"

Lescaut tells Manon that he has seen Des Grieux who has taken up gambling, hoping to win enough money to entice her back. Puccini now gives us a dramatically contrasted duet with Manon ecstatic at the thought of Des Grieux in her life once more, and Lescaut venally singing of cards and rich pickings. Merrill and Albanese shine here but so, too, do Callas and Fioravanti.

A group of singers enter Manon's boudoir. They serenade her with a madrigal that Geronte has composed especially for her. Lescaut pockets the money meant for them and exits while Geronte enters with his cronies - lots of dissolute old men and Abbés who have been brought in to admire Manon and, clearly, by implication the besotted Geronte himself who has triumphed as her lover. As they enter the orchestra plays some elegant music in the 18th century style. Perlea's reading is dainty and graceful and very feminine. The dancing master on the Perlea set is Mario Carlin who also sings Edmondo. He is an excellent character actor and his mincing tones makes him easily the best dancing master of all the sets reviewed here. The dancing lesson scene culminates in Manon singing her madrigal in mock seriousness - the lovely 'L'ora o Tirsi è vaga e bella'. Albanese is, perhaps, too mechanical but Callas and Caballé have just the right balance of irony and beauty.

On the pretext that she needs to complete her dressing, Manon lingers behind when Geronte and his followers go out. He promises to have a sedan chair at her disposal to enable her to catch them up. Then Des Grieux arrives. He is full of anger at her betrayal but she pleads with him desperately, "I dreamt of a bright future" and at length breaks down his resistance. This scene gives Puccini the opportunity to write some of his most hot-blooded and voluptuous music (especially when Manon says all her wealth is for him). Not surprisingly, it is Callas and di Stefano who set one's senses a tingle here.

Domingo offers more depth and subtlety and he is well matched by Caballé. Bjoerling and Albanese are not without passion either. After sharing such bliss, they are quickly brought down to earth when Geronte comes back and finds them in flagrante. Manon enrages him when she points out how old and unsuitable he is as a lover as compared to Des Grieux. Geronte furiously exits promising revenge. The lovers laugh thinking they are free of him but they realise that they must go quickly. Manon regrets that she must sacrifice her clothes and jewels. Des Grieux is crushed and in a telling aria accuses her of being too easily distracted by the good life and he has descended into decadence because of her. Bjoerling and Domingo are very eloquent here. Manon apologises and promises to mend her ways. But then Lescaut bursts in and warns them Geronte has set the police on them and that they are on the way to arrest Manon. A frantic trio ensues as Manon, egged on by Lescaut tries to save as many of her jewels as she can but this proves to be her downfall. She is caught red-handed and the curtain falls as she is arrested with Geronte laughing maliciously and Lescaut restraining Des Grieux telling him they must remain free so that they might rescue her.

The Sinopoli set has strengths in Act II. Freni is nicely coquettish in this the first of her two Manon's (but she is even better nine years later with Pavarotti). Bruson's Lescaut is nicely teasing. Sinopoli's accompaniment for the Madrigal and Minuet sections is most eloquent with the Philharmonia on top form. Freni and Domingo are aflame in their love duets but this combination cannot compete with the white-hot fervour of Freni teamed with Pavarotti on the Levine set. Freni adds more depth and subtlety to her Manon the second time round and Pavarotti is simply marvellous. His voice is both a-tremor and increasingly engulfed by passion as Manon breaks down his resistance; and, later, his self-loathing is very apparent as he sings of how Manon has caused him to slip into degradation, when she rues having to sacrifice her comforts to leave Geronte for him. Levine's Madrigal and Minuet are also very elegant. Dwayne Croft's Lescaut is splendidly venal too. Giuseppe Taddei's Geronte passes superbly from effete besottedness to outrage and cruelty. One also cannot ignore the spontaneity of the Muti live performance that seems to spur Guleghina and Gallo to heights of passion. It is interesting to note the distinguished guest artists who grace the role of the Madrigal Singer: Cecilia Bartoli on Levine's set and Brigitte Fassbaender on Sinopoli's.

INTERMEZZO - The Imprisonment - The Journey to Le Havre

[Des Grieux: "…How I love her! My passion is so strong that I feel I am the most unhappy creature alive. The attempts I made in Paris to obtain her release! I have implored the powerful, I have knocked and petitioned at very door! I have even resorted to violence. All was in vain. Only one way remains for me - to follow her! And I will follow her! Wherever she may go!…Even to the ends of the earth!" -- The story of Manon Lescaut and the Chevalier des Grieux by Abbé Prévost.]

The above narrative accompanies the music of the Intermezzo that bridges Acts II and III. Puccini's music is taken from themes of both acts and used in Act IV too. This Intermezzo is often performed independently of the opera. It is very powerful and dramatic and has been compared with Wagner's music for Tristan. For me, Sinopoli gives the most moving and emotionally-charged performance of all six. He is challenged closely by Levine.


The curtain rises on a square near the harbour at Le Havre. It is dawn. Des Grieux and Lescaut have arrived hoping to free Manon from the nearby gaol where she is waiting with many other women pending deportation to America. Des Grieux, distraught with grief as he awaits reunion with his love, sings 'Dietro al destino mi traggo livido…' (Ashen-pale I trudge in search of my destiny…Oh the lingering torture of my life!) Bjoerling's singing displays this torture and anguish eloquently so does Domingo while di Stefano's interpretation is rather stronger and prouder. Lescaut is more sympathetic and noble by now and therefore less colourful. The reunion through the prison bars, between Manon and Des Grieux, interrupted by a passing, singing lamplighter, draws music from Puccini that is almost ethereally pure and full of pathos for a love that is by now tragic and despairing. Bjoerling is ardent and unswerving in his loyalty through his wearied anguish and Albanese is pliant and loving; so too are Domingo and Caballé. Callas despairs and gives way dramatically to her forebodings which di Stefano brushes aside with manly bravado and succeeds in persuading her to fall in with their rescue plan. [Interestingly, Ian Partridge is cast as the lamplighter on the Bartoletti set.] Alas, probably because of Manon's fright and hesitation, the rescue plan is foiled. A shot is heard. The alarm raised. Des Grieux is persuaded by Manon and Lescaut to withdraw.

The Sergeant at the garrison summons all the women prisoners to a roll call prior to embarkation. There follows a brilliant piece of theatre as the prostitutes - all differing personalities some bold and brassy, others withdrawn - file in line. The townsfolk comment on them all. Amongst them is Manon. The townsfolk conjecture about her while the sergeant continues the roll call and Lescaut comments on Manon's fate as Des Grieux draws towards her and tries to comfort her while she urges him to escape. All this goes on in one rich tapestry of sound. The roll call finished, the sergeant forcibly separates Manon from the arms of the weakened but defiant Des Grieux who, in desperation, implores the captain of the ship to take him on board as a cabin boy so that he should not be separated from Manon. The curtain falls as the captain agrees and the unfortunates embark for the Americas. Perlea's townsfolk are disappointing but Bjoerling is very touching in his impassioned plea to the captain. Serafin's crowd scene is more successful; but it really needs stereo and, in having this advantage, Bartoletti makes this section really come to life. Di Stefano is rather too keen on maintaining a heroic stance to be really believable. Domingo's heart-broken imploring of the captain is more convincing.

Turning to the three more recent recordings. Domingo is even more tortured with Freni on the Sinopoli CD, which is distinguished by the drama and the wide perspectives of the roll call and embarkation scene. But it is the partnership of the older Freni and Pavarotti that again impresses most in their 'prison' duet which is so affecting. The crowd scene is great theatre too in Levine's hands with an explosive climax, and Pavarotti explores greater depths in his final aria. As he implores the captain to take him on as cabin boy, he manages to find some pride and determination as well as anguish. The Muti set has the immediacy of a live theatre recording - you can hear the stage movements and there is real momentum and excitement with an impassioned climax in the embarkation scene. Cura is manly and reassuring for his Manon, and Guleghina is tender and pliant.

Act IV

Des Grieux has had a duel over Manon with the nephew of the governor of the French colony; thinking he has killed the man, he and Manon have set off across the desert to reach the British colony. Manon is dying from exhaustion but encourages Des Grieux to leave her briefly in search of water. When he returns empty-handed she is already slipping away and with a last promise of her love she dies in his arms. All the tenors are tenderly supportive of their dying Manon. You feel the tears in the voice of Bjoerling and the deep distress of Domingo and Pavarotti. All thunderously berate the fates for their predicament. The sopranos are all good too: Albanese very touching as she expires, Callas wonderfully expressive of a range of emotions in the great aria, 'Sola, perduta, abbandonata…' (Alone, lost and forsaken) which she sings as Des Grieux is away looking for water. You feel her rising panic, 'I don't want to die' then that brief ray of sunlight at 'A land of peace, this seemed to me' then her descent into self pity, self disgust and anger at 'Alas my fatal beauty kindles new strife…' Freni, on both the Levine and Sinopoli sets is outstanding here too. The passionate duet that precedes this aria is especially moving as performed by Pavarotti and Freni.


The Naxos Super Bargain Set.

Time and again Naxos have proved that you do not necessarily have to have super stars, on major labels, at top prices to guarantee quality performances. This set is no exception. Naxos's policy of engaging young and up-and-coming opera stars and lesser-known orchestras pays dividends again here. Miriam Gauci is a wonderfully expressive Manon grasping every opportunity to show a wealth of emotions - often mixed and rapidly changing as in her final Act IV aria, 'Sola..perduta..abbandonata…' She easily assumes the roles of the innocent girl about to enter a convent in Act I, the vain, coquettish, passionate and greedy strumpet of Act II and the remorseful, down-trodden prisoner and escapee of Acts III and IV. Her passionate arias, and duets with Kaludov, approach, at times, the intensity of Freni and even Callas. The young Kaludi Kaludov makes a dashing, heroic but ultimately tragically distraught Des Grieux. His timbre is most attractive, he has power and eloquence and he can colour his voice with a sensitivity approaching Domingo. Vincente Sardinero's Lescaut impresses too with just the right balance of self-seeking and brotherly allegiance. Marcel Rosca as Geronte di Ravoir is excellent too - an unscrupulous old roué, humbled by love then enraged by cuckolding and rejection

Rahbari and the Brussels orchestra are somewhat erratic. For the most part they are very good, pointing up some interesting subtleties and underlining the drama. But frankly they are not up to any of the competition - some ensemble work is a tad ragged; the Intermezzo is leaden and lacks Sinopoli's and Levine's polish and legato; and the roll call scene tends to be too doleful.

Budget labels usually have to cut costs in some area of bigger opera productions. It is in the booklet that this cost cutting has most seriously affected this set, for the libretto is printed in Italian only - there are no translations so newcomers (probably the main market segment) have to rely on the synopses. But, all in all, for those on a tight budget this set is a confident recommendation.

The 1997 Glyndebourne Opera Production Video

This 1977 Glyndebourne production sounds fine but often looks uncomfortable. The sets are sparse. Act I has little more than benches and chairs with unrelieved bare walls of orange/umber. There is little to suggest an inn; there are no coaches. The characters have to descend stairs at the back of the set to go off-stage to these. In compensation, there is bright lighting and the gaiety and high-spirits of the townspeople. The chorus is uniformly good and their movements interestingly choreographed through the promenades, flirtatious folk games and around the card players. Antonello Palombi's Edmondo, stocky, good-humoured and kindly, subtly and unobtrusively draws the strands of the Act I narrative together, introduces it and with a flourish brings it to a close. Des Grieux (the tall, slim, red-headed, handsome Patrick Denniston) enters quietly, studiously but is soon persuaded by Edmondo to loose some reserve and flirt with the girls in his 'Tra voi, belle, brune e bione'. Denniston has a most attractive tenor voice and significant acting flair. When he sees Manon his bouncy demeanour is halted and you sense that he is immediately smitten although why this should be so when we see Manon (the petite and a rather comfortable Adina Nitescu) for the first time is something of a mystery. Surely Glyndebourne's wardrobe department could have found her a costume that flattered her form more than the voluminous, shapeless matronly dress that she wears here? Elevated shoes would have helped to narrow the too-noticeable distance between herself and her Des Grieux and her flat hat only helps to squash her frame even more! A rather stiff acting manner in Act I does not help either. But the voice - that is a different matter. Nitescu has a pure girlish tone and clarity and projection. Roberto de Candia is a splendid Lescaut, bumptious, self-opinionated and manipulative. His boasting is transparent to Geronte di Ravoir. Paolo Montarsolo is excellent in the role, a suave, sophisticated, and unscrupulous roué, ruthlessly intent on abducting Manon.

The set of Act II is again minimal - just a huge bed with an equally gigantic mirror suspended at an angle behind it. Walls are bare save for a door at the left. In this act Manon is dressed in all the finery that living with the rich di Ravoir has bestowed. The negative image of her appearance in Act I is quickly forgotten. Nitescu is much more impressive in her acting in this act. Her opening vanities as she is dressed by a retinue of effete servants (teased by Lescaut) provides some early visual comedy. Lescaut's aria in which he congratulates her on her new rich nest with di Ravoir rather than her poor cottage with Des Grieux is nicely balanced - passé and ironic. Manon responds touchingly in her aria in which she observes the glitter but chill of riches as opposed to the warmth of love. The Madrigal section is beautifully staged with the foppish singer and chorus affectedly serenading Manon with di Ravoir's composition. He, di Ravoir, enters perfumed and be-wigged with a clutch of doddering old cronies assembled to admire his conquest together with a few abbés (a female chorus) and another effete, the dancing master. This is another comic interlude with the elderly roué soon exhausted by the exertion of dancing with his young mistress. She shows, at this point, complete control over her besotted old admirer by standing over him on the bed to sing in his praise, with some 'back-of-hand' insolence, the lovely 'L'ora, o Tirsi…'. After her decrepit admirers have departed, Des Grieux enters full of anger and athirst for vengeance but Manon's passionate remorse soon swamps his resistance. Their passionate arias and duets are most compelling. At the height of their passion, di Ravoir bursts in and after Manon has cruelly spurned him "Just look at yourself (in the mirror) and look at us", he angrily departs and threatens reprisals. The act ends with some grand theatre - Manon insisting that she must gather all her precious jewellery before they flee when Lescaut warns them that the police are closing in. But her prevarication has caused fatal delay and the jewels she is carrying spill over the floor just as the police burst through the door to arrest her as a thief and prostitute.

Act III is another sparse set with iron bars set into a recess in one wall to represent Manon's Le Havre gaol. The 'through-the-prison-bars' duet between the anguished Des Grieux and the distraught Manon in which they passionately confirm their love and he persuades her to fall in with Lescaut's rescue plan, is interrupted by a singing lamplighter (carrying books?) When the rescue fails, a gangplank shoots out of one of the walls to signify a ship. Very economical sets these! Fortunately, the very populated stage more than compensates. After the roll call the women prisoners are escorted out of gaol. Each one is a character. Some are sad and withdrawn, some angry and resentful, some flirtatious trying to get round the Sergeant and his troops. Colourful cameos all, these are. Manon is dragged from the arms of Des Grieux but pleads pitifully but passionately for a place on the ship beside Manon. He is taken on board as cabin boy as the curtain descends.

The last Act IV is unsurprisingly barren, a wasteland for the American desert with nothing but boulders scattered across the ground. Des Grieux and Manon are escaping towards the British colony after he had killed the nephew of the French Governor in a duel. Their arias and duets are again most touching with Nitescu shining in 'Sola, perduta, abbandonata' as she expresses panic at the thought of dying, pleasant reveries of a golden life that might have been in America and anger and despair at the thought of the trouble her fatal attraction had continued to wrought. Alas, her acting in this last act is not always convincing but she expires most affectingly.

John Eliot Gardiner leads his soloists, choir and the LPO in committed, passionate and sensitive performances. A useful visual supplement to the audio recommendations.


All the recordings considered have their merits. The oldest - the 1955 RCA Victor recording is distinguished by the golden voice of Jussi Bjoerling and although the sound is not too good, Jonel Perlea's orchestral accompaniment has many appealing felicities and subtleties. This recording is presently unavailable. Although it will inevitably reappear in the catalogues, I do recommend purchasing any remaining copies in the stores. Callas and di Stefano are a powerful combination and this thrilling Serafin set from 1959 has to be my runner-up choice. My remarks above identify the strengths of the Bartoletti, Sinopoli and Muti sets but my top recommendation of all the presently available recordings must go to the 1993 Decca Levine set that thrillingly teams Freni with Pavarotti superbly backed by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

Ian Lace

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