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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
Manon Lescaut (1893)

Licia Albanese (soprano) – Manon Lescaut; Jussi Björling (tenor) – Chevalier des Grieux; Robert Merrill (baritone) – Lescaut; Franco Calabrese (bass) – Geronte di Ravoir and Sergeant of the Royal Archers; Mario Carlin (tenor) – Edmondo and The Dancing Master; Enrico Campi (bass) – The Innkeeper and The Ship’s Captain; Anna Maria Rota (mezzo) – The Madrigal Singer
Rome Opera House Chorus and Orchestra/Jonel Perlea
rec. 11–13, 15–17 July 1954, Opera House, Rome
Reissue Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
Bonus Tracks: A Licia Albanese Recital

Gustave CHARPENTIER (1860 – 1956) Louise: Depuis le jour; Alfredo CATALANI (1854 – 1893) La Wally: Ebben? Ne andrò lontana; Pietro MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945) Cavalleria Rusticana: Voi lo sapete; Francesco CILEA (1866 – 1950) Adriana Lecouvreur: Poveri fiori, RCA Victor Orchestra/Victor Trucco, rec. 1950
Arrigo BOITO (1842 – 1918) Mefistofele: L’altra notte in fondo al mare with RCA Victor Orchestra/Jonel Perlea, rec. 1947
Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887 – 1959) Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for Soprano, 8 Cellos and String Bass: Aria (Cantilena) with Frank Miller (solo cello)/Leopold Stokowski, rec. 8 February 1951, Manhattan Center, New York
NAXOS 8.111030-31 [75:54 + 69:57]

This Manon marked RCA’s move to Italy for their opera recordings, initially employing the Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra, later the RCA Italiana Orchestra. It was possibly the first complete version, unless the Cetra was older, Ironically Decca was also in Rome the same summer, 1954, recording the opera with Tebaldi and Del Monaco, a set that also would be interesting to see reissued. The set under consideration is a good one with excellent contribution from the Italian comprimarios, three of them taking double roles, and with three Metropolitan stalwarts in the leading parts, an American baritone, a Swedish tenor and an Italian soprano with a Romanian maestro leading the proceedings.

Mark Obert-Thorn has made good transfers from the original LPs and even though this is a mono recording it is well-defined and dynamic enough to make it a worthwhile acquisition. By 1954 the technical excellence had reached a level that even today is more "modern" than "historical".

Jonel Perlea, who made a number of important opera recordings, leads a very flexible performance and is, or so it seems, very considerate to his main soloists who are encouraged to delve deep into their characters. Sometimes he can be dangerously slow but not to such a degree that he loses momentum. The intermezzo (CD2 track 1) shows the best of him, tender and impassioned, and the Rome orchestra play the music as to the manner born. It is also good to have a real opera chorus instead of some studio group who possibly sing better but don’t act convincingly.

Mario Carlin with a pleasant lyric voice sings well as Edmondo and also characterises the Dancing Master with suitable haughtiness in the second act. As Geronte we hear Sicilian-born bass Franco Calabrese who impresses greatly with his warmth and nobility. Geronte being the evil person in this drama is often interpreted with distorted noises but of course he is a nobleman who has had a great career. As such he should know how to please people with his good manners, including a charming voice. It is a pity that he mostly is represented on records in comprimario parts, bar Almaviva in the Glyndebourne production recorded in 1955 with Gui conducting. His voice, as heard here, is similar to Robert Merrill’s, although a third lower. Merrill is glorious and also much more flexible and nuanced than on many other recordings. Listen to him on CD1 track 14 in the second act scene with his sister Manon and also at the beginning of the third act.

But the real hero of this recording is Jussi Björling in a part that is just as important as the heroine’s. This was, if I’m not mistaken, the last new role Björling added to his repertoire, only a couple of years before this recording was made. The opera played an important part in his career since he made his debut at the Stockholm Opera, aged 19, as the Lamplighter in the third act. He also sang des Grieux at his penultimate appearance in Stockholm in 1959. It has been said and written many times that this is probably his very best complete opera recording, singing with a passion and feeling that is almost tangible. He has a heroic ring so silvery that one gets goose-pimples. Donna non vidi mai (CD1 track 6) is splendidly sung but one can dip into any scene where he appears and everything feels absolutely right. Let me just pick one moment of exceptional beauty and passion: just before the end of act two, when he urges Manon to flee with him (CD1 track 22) Ah, Manon, mi tradisce, sung with the utmost simplicity and warmth. The famous silver-shining brilliance is there of course but what impresses most is the restraint, the nuances that make des Grieux a man of flesh and blood. This aria has always stood out as possibly the best evidence of Björling’s capacity as an opera "artist". I had it very early on a compilation LP and have returned to it over and over again for more than forty years. If Jussi Björling is to be represented with only one item - horrible thought! - on a future "Record of Singing" anthology, covering the 1950s, this would probably be it! What tenderness, what inflections, what passion!

I have left the heroine until last. Unfortunately she is also the weakest link in this cast. Licia Albanese had been singing professionally for twenty years, at the Metropolitan since 1940. Although not much older than forty her voice had lost some of its former sheen. It is quite occluded in the middle register and her vibrato can be irritating, sometimes approaching a wobble. Her top is impressive though, steady and brilliant but not warm enough and the most serious drawback: she sounds decidedly old. Manon, after all, is a teenager. When reviewing Maria Callas’s Puccini recital on Regis recently, I mentioned that Callas sounds girlish – Albanese is middle-aged. Still there are many good things, too, not least her deep involvement. Here Björling and Albanese inspired each other. The last act is infinitely moving from the bleak opening to the final chords. Björling expresses his despair with a voice that is on the verge of breaking, and Albanese’s occluded tones seem absolutely right, considering her physical state, starved, exhausted, but she has strength enough to sing Sola, perduta, abbandonata with a fine ring – but filled with pain.

There is no libretto – it can be downloaded from naxos.com – but Keith Anderson’s synopsis is helpful, and we get a substantial bonus in the shape of five arias and Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 recorded separately a few years earlier by Licia Albanese. She is fresher of voice but has basically the same vices and virtues as on the complete opera. Her top is even more impressive with tremendous attack but the delivery is a bit unlovely – there is not much warmth. She sings Voi lo sapete from Cavalleria Rusticana with enormous feeling, complete with sobs and sighs, but even in the Boito aria, recorded in 1947, she sounds old. Interestingly she manages to be rather girlish in the Villa-Lobos piece, where Frank Miller plays a beautiful cello solo.

Returning to Manon Lescaut I have a soft spot for Bartoletti’s EMI recording from the early 1970s with Caballé and Domingo. Muti’s live recording from La Scala (DG) with an impassioned José Cura is also great, but no one can afford to be without this version, for the overall excellence but especially for Jussi Björling’s unsurpassable des Grieux, now that it is available at Naxos price.

Göran Forsling

 

 



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