Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Comparative Reviews of Recordings of Manon Lescaut by
lists of all seven recordings
reviewed plus one video
introductory article about
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
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
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.
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 "
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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