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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Manon Lescaut - opera in four acts (1893)
Libretto: Marco Praga, Domenico Oliva, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa based on a novel by Abbé Prévost.
First performed at the Teatro Regio Turin, 1 February 1893
Manon Lescaut, Licia Albanese (sop); Lescaut, Manon’s brother and Sergeant in the Kings Guard, Robert Merrill (bar); Cavalier des Grieux, a student, Jussi Björling (ten); Geronte, wealthy Treasurer-General, Franco Calabrese (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Rome Opera /Jonel Perlea
rec, Rome Opera House, July 1954. mono
Appendix: A recital by Licia Albanese
Gustave CHARPENTIER (1860-1956)
Louise, Depuis la jour. rec. 1950
Alfredo CATALANI  (1854-1893)
La Wally, Ebben? ne andró lontana. rec. 1950
Francesco CILEA (1866-1950)
Adriana Lecouvreur, Poveri fiori. rec. 1950
Arrigo BOITO (1842-1918)  
Mefistofele, L’altra notte in fondo al mare. rec. 1947
Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959) Bachianas Brasileiras No 5, Aria (Cantilena). rec. New York. February 1951
Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS HISTORICAL GREAT OPERA RECORDINGS SERIES 8.111030-31 [75.54 + 69.57]



Puccini’s first two operas, Le villi premiered on 31 May 1884, and Edgar at La Scala on 21 April 1889, had not set the composer on the path to fame; the latter work being very modestly received. Having enticed Elvira Gemignani from her husband he had her and her two children to support. He considered joining his brother in South America, but the latter’s reply to his letter promised little. He abandoned the plan and turned his thoughts to a new operatic project. His publisher, Ricordi, made various suggestions that Puccini rebuffed before settling on the subject of Manon. The original librettist was to have been Puccini’s contemporary, the composer Ruggero Leoncavallo who declined the commission. Puccini turned to the dramatist Marco Praga who chose Domenico Oliva as his collaborator. Disagreements with Puccini resulted in these two withdrawing from the project part way through although they had done much work in recasting the sequences of the opera as Puccini wished. Ricordi turned to Giuseppe Giacosa who in turn suggested the poet Luigi Illica who agreed to further reshape the libretto, a task made the more difficult by the fact that Puccini had already composed some of the music for some scenes. By the spring of 1891 Giacosa had agreed to help Illica and both playwrights were busily writing and rewriting scenes whilst Puccini worked on the music. These two were to provide the librettos for La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. At the premiere seeing that six people had been involved in the production of the libretto, none were willing to put their name as librettist and the press presumed the composer had written it himself! Given such a tortured gestation a circumspect Ricordi, aware that La Scala was to premiere Verdi’s last opera shortly after the scheduled premiere of Manon Lescaut, and keen to avoid any further failure for Puccini at that theatre, presented the work in Turin. By the time of the premiere even Puccini felt he had a success coming and despite last minute fears the work was a resounding triumph. The applause began with the brief tenor aria Tra voi, belle in act 1 (CD 1 tr. 2) when Puccini had to appear on stage to acknowledge the plaudits. At the end of the performance the composer and cast took thirty curtain calls (The Complete Operas of Puccini. Charles Osborne. Gollancz 1981). Although choice of story was always an agony for the composer he never looked back and had a secure financial future that was only marred by his womanising and smoking habit.

The outpouring of melody and arias for the principals continues from the opening of the opera. Several of the individual arias have become regular pieces in concerts and on recital discs. They are a gift for accomplished singers as are the duets trios and ensembles. In this recording the principals are never less than good and in the case of Björling and Merrill, more than that. Björling’s plangent tone, well-coloured and covered, with plenty of heft for the vocal climaxes was, I suspect, the raison d’être of the recording. His singing of Donna’ non vidi mai (CD 1 tr. 6) and particularly in the final act (CD 2 trs. 8-12) is distinctive and a pleasure to hear. Merrill’s mellifluous tone as Lescaut is no less a pleasure. He is sometimes criticised for lack of characterisation. I would rather have the secure singing on offer from him here than over-mannered and exaggerated characterisation at the expense of vocal allure. I believe he has the balance right, particularly in the scenes with Manon (CD 1 trs.13, 14 and 16).

As Manon, Licia Albanese is a curious mixture. Italian-born she had debuted at the Met in 1940, becoming a leading lyric soprano there. She recorded Mimi and Violetta for Toscanini. In the second act as the coquettish kept mistress of Geronte she adopts a light tone, failing to hold a good legato line; her Il quelle trine morbide (CD 1 tr. 15) is pinched. I worried how she would cope with the dramatic demands of act four and the big aria Sola, perduta, abbandonata (CD 2 tr. 11). In fact she sings the whole act with distinctly fuller tone and with a wider palette of colour to her voice. The aria is not ideally steady but its emotions are well portrayed. So too are the desperate emotions of Björling’s Des Grieux as the tragic situation reaches its climax. The smaller roles are adequately taken although I would have preferred a more significant voice than Franco Calabrese as Geronte. The Romanian conductor Jonel Perlea supports his singers whilst also doing justice to the drama and Puccini’s sophisticated orchestration.

The opera excerpts in the appendix catch Licia Albanese in better and younger voice. By today’s standards her singing is not that distinguished but their inclusion here is welcome as they provide a memento of an artist who made nearly three hundred appearances at the Met. Prior to this recording RCA had used their American orchestra and the Robert Shaw Chorale for opera recordings. Increased costs and union restrictions made them transfer to Rome. This recording was the first of a series made in the Rome Opera House with the resident orchestra and chorus. When the latter became contracted to EMI they were called the RCA Italiana Opera Orchestra and Chorus listed as recorded in the company’s Rome studio. The first impact on the listener will be the sound, particularly if compared with the various contemporaneously issued Callas recordings made in La Scala. Here the sound is distinctly superior, being clearer, better balanced and more forward. Mark Obert-Thorn, the restoration engineer, has realised the acoustic properties of the original recording using British LP pressings. He notes that at about two minutes into CD 1 tr.16 there is a momentary pitch fluctuation and that this is present on the master tape and all subsequent editions of the recordings. If he had not pointed it out the defect might have passed without notice as I enjoyed this performance of Manon Lescaut, particularly the recording clarity and quality for its day. Above all I enjoyed the singing of Jussi Björling, a prince among tenors, for tone and vocal taste. I commend it to all lovers of Puccini as an excellent addition to the ranks of recordings of the composer’s first real success.

Robert J Farr

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