Among the three complete Manon Lescaut recordings from
the 1950s none is completely satisfying but all three have good
things to offer. There was a Cetra recording as well, which
I haven’t heard, and quite recently WHRA issued a live recording
from the Metropolitan Opera (see review)
made in 1956. Like the studio recording by RCA, made in 1954,
(issued on Naxos, see review)
Björling and Albanese are des Grieux and Manon Lescaut. Decca’s
set, recorded incidentally the same summer as the RCA and also
in Rome, has Tebaldi and Del Monaco as the lovers.
The best conducting on these sets comes from Mitropoulos on
the live Met production. Perlea on the RCA is also good though
less dynamic and Molinari-Pradelli on the Decca is rather run-of-the-mill.
Björling is in excellent form on both recordings, the studio
version regarded by many as the best of all his complete sets.
His was an ideal Puccini voice. Del Monaco is no doubt impressive
but he lacks the lyrical qualities of Björling. Licia Albanese
was past her best in both her recordings, involved no doubt
but the voice is frayed. Tebaldi on the other hand is magnificent
and pours out her opulent tones magically.
So how does this La Scala performance compare with the others?
Rather favourably, I would say. With Tullio Serafin at the helm
we are offered a fresh idiomatic reading with well judged tempos.
Giuseppe Di Stefano is as engaged and intense as ever but his
singing is rather coarse to begin with. He improves and sings
a sensitive Donna non vidi mai and in the last act he
is heartrending. The back-cover notes mention that there are
signs of strain in Callas’s singing, emanating from the recording
of Turandot just a few days earlier. I can’t quite agree.
It is true that there are a couple of high notes that are unsteady,
even wobbly, but in general this is Callas at her most girlish:
light-voiced, lyrical and with the power to make the dramatic
climaxes thrilling. She is superb throughout. By her side Tebaldi
sounds too mature and Albanese, as I once wrote, sounds more
like Manon Lescaut’s granny. Dino Formichini is a rather provincial
Edmondo but otherwise there is a fine line-up of comprimario
singers. Giulio Fioravanti is a lyrical Lescaut, singing beautifully
throughout. Franco Calabrese is a strong and expressive Geronte
– as he was also on the RCA set – and the young Fiorenza Cossotto
is a fine madrigal singer.
A straight winner is hard to pick. The RCA/Naxos is a must for
Björling at his very best and for Merrill’s attractive Lescaut
and Calabrese’s Geronte, The Decca set has good secondary singers
but is let down by the rather stentorian Del Monaco and Molinari-Pradelli’s
penny-plain conducting; it is, however, the only version in
stereo and has Tebaldi’s impressive Manon. Di Stefano in less
than pristine voice is still a committed des Grieux and Callas’s
impersonation of the teenage girl is enchanting while Serafin’s
conducting is everything one could wish.
The best of the five Puccini arias Di Stefano offers in the
appendix is a marvellous 1947 E lucevan le stele - but
the tracklist says Recondita armonia. By 1955 he had
lost a little of the beauty of tone and especially in the aria
from Gianni Schicchi he tends to push too hard. I have
heard better readings of Nessun dorma but it is brilliant
and full-voiced and not without nuance.
If only Callas and Björling had recorded Manon Lescaut
together we would have needed to look no further. As it is now
one needs both.
see also review by Robert
Track listing of Appendix CD:
Giuseppe Di Stefano sings Puccini Arias
13. E lucevan le stelle [3:16]
La fanciulla del West
14. Ch’elle mi creda [2:22]
15. Avete torto … Firenze è come un albero [3:19]
16. Non piangere, Liù [2:44]
17. Nessun dorma [3:24]