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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Manon - opera in five acts (1884)
libretto by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille after Antoine-François Prévost’s novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731)
Manon Lescaut – Mirella Freni (soprano)
Chevalier Des Grieux – Luciano Pavarotti (tenor)
Le Comte des Grieux – Antonio Zerbini (bass)
Lescaut – Rolando Panerai (baritone)
Guillot de Morfontaine – Franco Ricciardi (tenor)
De Brétigny – Giuseppe Morresi (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Peter Maag
rec. live, 3 June 1969, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
OPERA D’ORO OPD-1270 [70:05 + 61:13]

Of all Jules Massenet’s operas it is his earlier work Manon that has proved to be the most popular ... and with good reason. His adaptation of the Abbé Prévost’s novel Manon Lescaut (next to those of Auber [1856] and Puccini [1893] and the ballet by Halévy [1830]) contains some of the most melodramatic and genuinely heart-rending passages in all opera. The characters and emotions of the two leads, Manon and the Chevalier des Grieux are vividly drawn in music and their plight is depicted larger-than-life - as it is in all good Nineteenth Century opera - but totally believable nevertheless. Taken together with its sharply contrasted and many coloured settings, this opera is a highly effective theatre piece. Therefore, to make up for the inherent loss of the immediacy of a theatre performance, a recording of this opera begs for singing and conducting that are vivid and dramatic. These qualities are abundantly present in this live recording from Milan.

At the start of the opera, we encounter young Manon Lescaut in the bustling courtyard of an inn at Amiens. She is on her way to the convent and is supposed to meet her cousin Lescaut at the inn. After having been rudely courted by the old and wealthy Guillot, she meets the romantic cavalier Des Grieux, on his way to a reunion with his father. Their duet quickly evolves into a mutual declaration of love and they decide to elope to Paris. While Des Grieux sings of going off together, Manon is more fascinated by the prospect of Paris. It is the first sign of a fatal incompatibility.

In the second act we find the two lovers in rather poor surroundings in Paris. While Des Grieux, without much hope, is writing his father a letter for permission to marry his love, cousin Lescaut enters and fakes a scene about the offended family honour. Meanwhile the elderly and rich De Brétigny secretly informs Manon of Des Grieux’s father’s intent to abduct his son that evening in order to bring him back home and restore him to a respectable life. He offers Manon a glittering future if she comes with him. That evening her lover is abducted without warning, leaving a regretful Manon behind.

In the third act Manon, now leading a rich and glamorous life and attending some festivities, meets Des Grieux père. As he does not know who she is, Manon is able to learn from him that his son has entered the monastery of St. Sulpice and is about to take his vows. While the festivities continue Manon hurries off, as she wants to see her former lover one more time. When she finds him in the church, her love for him quickly overtakes her and he lets himself be seduced into running off again.

In the last two acts Guillot takes his revenge on the couple at a sumptuous gaming salon by accusing Des Grieux of cheating at cards and Manon of loose morals. While both of them are arrested, Des Grieux’s influential father intercedes on his son’s behalf but leaves Manon helpless. She is sentenced to exile in Louisiana. On her way to Le Havre she dies in the arms of Des Grieux.

Being an Opéra Comique it is only predictable that its characters are rather standard and given little or no development. However, the lead character is of great interest, as the role is complex and paradoxical in nature. It is this that leads Manon onto her destructive path. Manon is the catalyst of the story and therefore the main attraction.

Within Manon honesty contradicts wickedness. It is her honesty that makes her not only wicked despite herself, but truly good despite herself, too. Massenet succeeds perfectly in portraying this contradiction. In the opera Manon is a girl who not only passionately embraces all that life has to offer, but also every aspect of her character, the good and the bad. This combines into a will to live that is self-destructive and ultimately fatal.

Mirella Freni gives the perfect impersonation of this tragic character. In Addio, o nostro picciol desco in act II Manon has decided to leave her lover and the poor life that came with him for the riches of Brétigny. She sings her goodbye to happier days with Des Grieux and the listener hears her becoming overwhelmed by her self-imposed fate. She is almost driven to desperation by her inner conflict. This desperation comes back at the end of the act after Des Grieux has been abducted by his father’s men. At that point Manon lets out a terrible cry of regret and ends in uncontrolled sobbing.

In the third act, in the duet at the seminary of St. Sulpice Tu!..Voi!.. La tua non è la mano, Freni sings the beguiling Manon in a wildly erotic though simultaneously desperate manner, bordering on the psychopathic. She is answered by an equally aroused Pavarotti as Des Grieux. Hearing this scene and the audience reaction to it will no doubt give goose bumps to even the most seasoned listener.

Des Grieux is a less interesting character, as he is a stock-in-trade; the somewhat gullible but good-hearted tenor who becomes the victim of the femme fatale. Nevertheless the character is very satisfying and the part has some very rewarding numbers both for the singer and the audience. As far as range and technique is concerned the young Pavarotti proves himself a perfect singer for this role. He catches all the high notes - possibly even more than required - seemingly without effort.

In addition and surprisingly he is also not far from what a French interpretation should sound like. He turns out not to be the ferocious verismo blaster, but a passionate and graceful singer. He displays a lot of fine ‘French’ grace in a piece such as his second act aria Chiudo gli occhi e nel pensier. His phrasing and tenderness are in character with Massenet’s writing. Even though passion is never far off it remains controlled by Massenet’s subtle vocal lines which often make an unexpected turn towards the tender instead of the expected spectacular. There is another good example of Pavarotti following the composer’s cue of controlled passion. It can be found in the third act where Pavarotti gives a heart-breaking rendition of Ah! dispar vision. Indeed, Italy seems to be closer than France, but that has more to do with the Italian language in which this performance is sung than with style. After all, French opera and especially Massenet can and should be sung passionately too. This recording proves that French opera can be at least as engaging as its late Nineteenth Century Italian counterpart.

In this 1969 recording Mirella Freni and Pavarotti are in their youthful prime and on top of the world. Their singing is passionate and they take all the difficulties Massenet created for these two roles with great ease and with power to spare. Take for instance the incredibly long, sustained note in unison, at the end of Manon and Des Grieux's passionate duet A parigi, andrem in the first act. What power, what stamina and what excellent voices! It will leave the listener gulping for air. Their whole performance is filled with thrilling moments like these: The aforementioned X-rated church scene in act three is wild and the death scene touchingly melodramatic. These factors make it a must-have recording for lovers of great, passionate singing and of course for aficionados of Freni and Pavarotti.

The other singers are more than adequate. Antonio Zerbini has a rounded, sonorous bass, making the father appropriately severe, while Rolando Panerai is a nasty, menacing Lescaut. The small baritone role of De Brétigny is filled by the bass Giuseppi Morresi. Peter Maag's conducting of the La Scala forces is very dramatic and powerful. The fact that it is a live recording no doubt contributes to the splendidly dramatic performance. There is frequent and enthusiastic audience engagement. Depending on ones preference this can either be annoying or make for a great experience as it can enhance the illusion of being part of the performance.

As for authenticity - which I very much advocate - this recording cannot be relied on. Firstly, it is in Italian, not the original French. This can at times sound awkward - as translated opera's tend to do - and it partly deprives the music of its typical, French charm.

Secondly, the opera has been brutally cut. The cuts in the first act are still rather conventional, even by today’s standards; it is generally acknowledged that the first act is too long for its own dramatic good. However, ending the act with the duet between Manon and Des Grieux instead of the following public scene – where Lescaut is publicly humiliated when he finds out his sister has eloped - was certainly done to capitalize on the stunning effect of the duet, not to enhance dramatic coherence. Even worse is the omission of the first half of the third act, the scene at the Cours-la-Reine. One can understand, albeit grudgingly, that they left out the ballet, as the extra costs can be prohibitive. However, the rest of the scene is of significant dramatic importance as it illuminates Manon’s affair with Brétigny and her decision to leave him for Des Grieux. In fairness I should stress that Opera d’Oro has been kind enough to warn the potential buyer of this substantial omission on the back of the CD’s cover.

The presentation of this issue is what one has come to expect from a low budget publisher: bare and only partly to the point. However, it is an improvement on some earlier releases by this company. The warning about the omission of Act III, scene 1 has already been mentioned. While there is hardly any background information on the opera and the composer, the publishers have opted to use the sparse space available to them for a proper synopsis instead - which does include the omitted first scene of Act III. The track-list does not give timing indications, which can be annoying and would have been easy to include. The entry lines are given in the original French instead of the actually used Italian. This is hardly confusing but an interesting decision nonetheless.

In the booklet of a previous release of this recording - by Frequenz - the five act work was compressed to four, taking the last two acts together. It is not clear whether the La Scala production did the same, or not. Although this is how the opera was originally structured, this was aided by the elimination of the entire first part of act three as it would have been silly to have three such short acts in a row. Once the cuts have been made, it is only a matter of name-giving. This release gives the five act division.

These more or less negative considerations are outweighed by the splendid musical performance. The recording quality is good enough. The sound is dry but relatively clear and the singers can almost always be clearly heard above the orchestra. However, after comparing the overall sound quality with the aforementioned Frequenz release the Opera d’Oro issue seems to lose out. The orchestral sound is not always at a steady pitch, where in the previous release it was. This problem seems to get worse towards the end of the second CD - Oh!, the wind instruments! Even though the actual cause could no longer be traced, Opera d’Oro assumed they must have used a different source recording. In most cases there are many source masters for any given recording. Obviously, finding and licensing the best master can be a tricky, if not impossible affair.

There are a few strongly cast recordings that are sung in French as well as being uncut. The recent set with Alagna and Gheorghiu is quite good,. This is joined by an idiomatic 1956 recording with Victoria de Los Angeles and Henry Legay with the ensemble of the Opéra Comique conducted by Pierre Monteux. These two should certainly be part of the collection of any admirers of Manon, Massenet or of French opera in general. One way or another they lack the passionate fire and sheer thrill of this one. If you want to hear stupendous singing from two of the greatest Italian stars of the twentieth century caught in their prime and you do not mind the cuts and frequent frantic applause from a delirious audience, this will be an excellent purchase. The Decca recording of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut with Pavarotti and Freni makes for an interesting comparison.

Joost Overdijkink

 

 



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