Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Manon Lescaut - opera in four acts (1893)
Manon Lescaut - Maria Callas (soprano); Lescaut - Manon’s brother and Sergeant in the Kings Guard - Giulio Fiorvanti (baritone); Chevalier des Grieux, a student - Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor); Geronte, wealthy Treasurer-General - Franco Calabrese (bass); Edmondo, a student - Dino Forichini (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Tullio Serafin
rec. Teatro della Scala. July 1957
Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor) singing Puccini Arias
Tosca, Recondita armonia [3.16]
rec. Abbey Road Studio No 1. December 1947/Alberto Erede
La Fanciulla del West, Ch’ella mi creda libero [2.22]
Gianni Schicchi, Ave torto [3.19]
Turandot, Non piangere, Liu [2.44]
Turandot, Nessun dorma! [3.24]
La Scala Orchestra/Antonio Votto
rec. June 1955
Restoration by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS 8.112031-32 [76.09 + 59.09] 

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut had something of a difficult gestation. The composer had enticed another man’s wife to live with him and it was make or break time for him after his first two operas, Le villi premiered on 31 May 1884 and Edgar at La Scala on 21 April 1889, were only modestly received. He couldn’t settle with the chosen librettists who were changed to the extent that none put his name to the programme at the premieres. Being aware of these difficulties, and that shortly after the scheduled premiere La Scala was to stage Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, Puccini’s publisher moved the venue to Turin. Despite these last minute fears the work was a resounding success. The applause began with the brief tenor aria Tra voi, belle in act 1 (CD 1 tr.2) and Puccini had to appear on stage to acknowledge it. At the end of the performance the composer and cast took thirty curtain calls. Manon Lescaut set Puccini on a secure financial and artistic future. Whilst not rivalling La Boheme, Tosca or Madama Butterfly among Puccini’s most popular works, its fraught emotional story draws from the composer all the hallmarks of his renowned compositional style.

1957 was a very busy year for Callas as far as recording was concerned. This was particularly in comparison with her declining appearances at La Scala as her socialite life-style took over. In 1956 she and Gobbi had had a success there in Il barbiere di Siviglia (see review) and Walter Legge was keen to record the duo in the Rossini opera. Legge was also aware that Decca in particular was leaving his company behind in the technology of the emerging stereophonic recordings. This emerging technology was not possible at La Scala and the recording was made in London in February 1957. In that year Callas featured in three productions at La Scala with Legge choosing only to record La Sonnambula with his star soloist. He preferred to record her in the eponymous roles in Puccini’s Turandot which she had not sung for several years, and in Manon Lescaut, a role she never sang on stage. The two recordings were made in successive weeks in the La Scala theatre in mono with Tullio Serafin on the rostrum in both. I do not know how far Serafin prepared her, but Callas’s portrayal as Manon certainly comes over as one of the best of her Puccini interpretations. She varies her vocal tone and nuance as Manon evolves from the flighty fickleness of act 1, (CD 1 trs.1-12) through being Geronte’s rich self-centred mistress of act 2, (CDs 1 trs. 13-23) to her desperation and desolation in the final act (CD 2 trs.8-12). It is particularly in the last act, with her ability to act with the voice, that Callas is able fully to convey Manon’s fraught emotional state in Sola, perduta, abbandonata (CD 2 tr.11) and the drama of her desperate situation as she is alone and dying in the desert. Giuseppe Di Stefano is in good voice as Des Grieux and particularly ardent in the act two duet Oh saro la piu bella! (CD 1 tr.20). The Lescaut and Geronte are adequate.

The Di Stefano appendices on CD 2 are not taken from any of the complete opera sets the tenor made with Callas. The Recondita armonia (tr.13) is that which appeared on HMV Red Label 78rpm shellac in 1948 with the tenor singing with fine taste, elegant phrasing and honeyed tone. The sonic quality of this earlier performance from London has much to commend it as a recording. The four items conducted by Antonio Votto, and recorded at La Scala, are the same as on the recently issued EMI Classics Icon 206 0752 (see review). Di Stefano’s tone is coarser and those earlier honeyed tones so admired by many, not least by fellow tenors, have gone albeit his elegance of phrase has not. The high note in Ch’ella mi creda libero from La Fanciulla del West is a little squeezed (tr.14), the tenor coming more into his own in the Gianni Schicchi excerpt that follows. Di Stefano did not feature in the complete Turandot recording that preceded the Manon Lescaut recording. The role of des Grieux was sung by Eugenio Fernandi, a more robust voice. Here, Di Stefano’s Non piangere, Liu (tr.16) is loaded with pathos whilst his Nessun dorma! concludes with a ringing high note (Tr.17) as a fitting conclusion to the worthwhile appendix.

This performance was at full price as recently as 2006 and comparing this recording quality with that on the bargain priced Complete Edition of Callas’s Studio Recordings (see review) I can only marvel yet again at the sonic excellence that restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn achieves from LP originals now made available at bargain price. Let us hope that proposals to extend copyright do not come to fruition, as this quality allied to price advantage would disappear overnight.

Robert J Farr