Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
Manon Lescaut
Maria Callas (soprano) – Manon Lescaut; Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor) – Chevalier des Grieux; Giulio Fioravanti (baritone) – Lescaut; Franco Calabrese (bass) – Geronte di Ravoir; Dino Formichini (tenor) – Edmondo; Carlo Forti (bass) – The Innkeeper; Vito Tattone (tenor) – The Dancing Master; Fiorenza Cossotto (mezzo) – The Madrigal Singer; Giuseppe Morresi (bass) – Sergeant of the Royal Archers; Franco Ricciardi (tenor) – Lamplighter; Franco Ventriglia (bass) – The Ship’s Captain; Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Tullio Serafin
rec. Teatro della Scala, Milan, 18-20, 22, 24-27 July 1957
Appendix (CD 2 tr. 13-17):
Giuseppe Di Stefano sings Puccini Arias
Orchestra/Alberto Erede (tr. 13); Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Antonino Votto (14-17)
rec. EMI Abbey Road Studio 1, London, 6 December 1947 (13); Teatro della Scala, Milan, 20-23 June 1955 (14-17). ADD
NAXOS 8.112031-32 [76:09 + 59:09]

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.

Göran Forsling

see also review by Robert J. Farr

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]
Gianni Schicchi
15. Avete torto … Firenze è come un albero [3:19]
16. Non piangere, Liù [2:44]
17. Nessun dorma [3:24]