Puccini’s first two operas, Le villi premiered on 31 May
1884, and Edgar at La Scala on 21 April 1889, were 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 turned down before settling on the subject
of Manon. The original librettist was to have been Puccini’s contemporary,
the composer Ruggero Leoncavallo who turned the commission down.
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. By the spring
of 1891 Giacosa had agreed to help Illica. Both playwrights were
busily writing and rewriting scenes whilst Puccini worked on the
music. These two were to provide the librettos for La Bohème,
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. Despite last
minute fears the work was a resounding success, the applause began
with the brief tenor aria Tra voi, belle in act 1 (Ch.
4) when Puccini had to appear on stage to acknowledge the applause.
At the end of the performance the composer and cast took thirty
curtain calls. Although choice of story for this work was an agony
for the composer it set him on a secure financial and artistic
The opera consists
of four distinctly separate tableaux. Unity comes via both the
story and Puccini’s outpouring of melody and arias for the principals
and which continues from the opening of the opera to the end.
Several of the individual arias are regular pieces in concerts
and on recital discs and are a gift for accomplished singers
as are the duets, trios and ensembles. But for their full appreciation
hearing or seeing them in context is an added bonus. This recording
was the very first telecast from the Metropolitan Opera, New
York. It captures two of the greatest singers of their generation
in favourite roles in a highly detailed production by the composer
Gian-Carlo Menotti in naturalistic and ornate sets by Gil Weschler.
The early date of the recording cannot be disguised when compared
with the technical achievements of even later in the decade.
The colour is variable with Levine’s hands and face in the opening
being a blurred yellow for example. Elsewhere, focus and camera
perspective goes awry from time to time and the sound occasionally
distorts on peaks. In pointing out these limitations I would
not want overstate them. They are more than adequately compensated
for in the impact of the arrival of Manon’s coach pulled by
live horses (Ch. 6) and the opulence of her dresses and boudoir
in Geronte’s home in act two. These are coups-de-théâtres
of the best kind, and given their expense, not often seen
in productions in more recent years - even in the largest houses.
In the story, Manon
is a young and beautiful girl being taken to a convent by her
brother in response to her father’s wishes. The Italian Renata
Scotto sings the role here. She was forty-six at the time of
the recording and although she has a young face for her age,
she does not match Domingo in respect of appropriate looks.
In compensation she is a truly great singing actress. Her face,
movements and body language attain perfection in expressing
Manon’s various states and emotions as the story moves through
its dramatic phases. Hers is a true spinto voice that can ride
the thick orchestration that Puccini so often wrote, not least
for his heroines. Scotto’s rendition of the Sola, perduta,
abbandonata (Ch. 36) in act four, as des Grieux searches
for water in the bleak desert and then dies in his arms (Ch.
37), is singer-acting as good as it gets in the operatic world.
There are times when she puts a little too much pressure on
her voice, but they are few. A black wig enables Domingo to
look more like a young student than his thirty-nine years. He
sings with strong true lyric and expressive tone and without
a hint of baritonal hue. Given that he was already singing Otello
in the theatre, and had recorded the first of his several interpretations,
I found this truly amazing.
Des Grieux was a favourite
Domingo role. He recorded it twice in the studio, first with Caballé
(1971) and then with Freni (1983). This is his second appearance
on a DVD, the other being of a performance from a Royal Opera,
Covent Garden with Te Kanawa as Manon in 1983 (Warner). The virility
of his singing here is a match for any of these other performances.
His youngish appearance and committed acting, allied to the strength
of his singing, sets a very high standard. Needless to say his
rendition of Donna non vida mai (Ch. 8) is applauded to
the rafters but not, I am pleased to say, to the excess practised
in Vienna in response to his Andrea Chenier (see review).
Although the singing
of Pablo Elvira as Manon’s pimping brother Lescaut is strong,
his acting is a bit wooden. This cannot be said of the superb
cameo of Renato Capecchi as the rich besotted ‘sugar daddy’ Geronte.
His leer, walk and general demeanour say everything about the
character without his opening his mouth. When he does so, his
singing is strong, expressive and well characterised. The minor
role of the young Edmondo, who aids des Grieux in spiriting Manon
from the inn, is well acted and sung by Richard Creech.
What makes this
performance rather special is the acted and sung interplay between
Scotto and Domingo. The way she jumps up into his arms and he
carries her to the coach (Ch. 12) is an effective and touching
moment, as is their mutual support in the waterless desert of
act four. Their duets together in each act, whether expressing
tentative infatuation (Ch 7), ardent passion, (Ch. 22) or a
mixture of hope or desperation (Chs. 33-37) are the guts of
Puccini’s creation and what makes this performance worth seeing.
James Levine’s conducting of the orchestra holds the whole together
in an exemplary manner. Whilst Te Kanawa in the Covent Garden
recording looks more appropriately young than Scotto here, her
singing is bland compared with Scotto whilst Sinopoli’s conducting
is fractured and episodic by comparison with Levine’s cohesive
whole. Forget the minor technical limitations of this early
video transcript and glory in Puccini’s music and the committed
acting and singing of the main protagonists.
Robert J Farr