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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Manon Lescaut - opera in four acts (1893)
Manon Lescaut, Renata Scotto (sop); Lescaut, Manon’s brother and Sergeant in the King’s Guard, Pablo Elvira (bar); Chevalier des Grieux, a student, Placido Domingo (ten); Geronte, wealthy Treasurer-General, Renato Capecchi (bass); Edmondo, a student, Richard Creech (ten)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/James Levine.
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 29 March 1980
Production by Gian-Carlo Menotti.
Set and costumes design by Gil Weschler.
Video director, Kirk Browning.
Audio Producer, John F. Pfeiffer
Picture format: NTSC/Colour/4:3
Sound formats: PCM Stereo. DTS 5.1. DOLBY digital 5.1
Menu language: English. Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish and Chinese.
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 1983
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DVD VIDEO 000440 073 4241 GH [2 DVDs: 180:00]

 



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 future.

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

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