Manon Lescaut, the earliest of Puccini’s operas
to enjoy continuing international success, has attracted some
very starry casts on record. There are plenty of recordings
vying for recommendation alongside this vintage 1957 set, reissued
by EMI with the libretto and synopsis now on a Bonus Disc. Rival
sets are good or very good.
Maria Callas’s voice sounds rather harsh here with the
result being less satisfying than some of her other Puccini
heroines - notably her Madama Butterfly with Karajan
(1955) and her astonishing Mimi in La Boheme (1956) -
the latter recorded just a year before this set and one of her
finest records. As Manon, Licia Albanese is full of personality
but the voice sounds old in 1954 (RCA) while Kiri Te Kanawa
is not very dramatic for Chailly (Decca). Montserrat Caballé’s
recording fails to catch fire although there are some lovely
effects. She is not helped by an off-form Bruno Bartoletti conducting
and Placido Domingo who is not nearly as interesting as he is
live on DVD or in the later Sinopoli set.
On more recent recordings, Mirella Freni is pretty much ideal
with the earlier set sounding very beautiful with the singers
quite far away from the microphones. The Levine performance,
although catching Freni in her fifties, is probably the most
satisfying of all alongside an excellent cast. The Callas performance
is more dramatic and interesting than most of the others but
her voice is far less even - especially compared to Montserrat
Caballé or Renata Tebaldi for Decca.
Serafin’s conducting is the best on records along with
that of Jonel Perlea. Some more recent recordings are well conducted
such as the Sinopoli set but with Serafin the speeds always
sound right and are less contentious than those of Sinopoli
on DG. The Levine set for Decca is less flexible but exciting
in its own way. The conducting of Bruno Bartoletti with Montserrat
Caballé and Domingo is rather dull.
What remains mesmerizing is the gusto of this performance with
Callas's creativity and intelligence evident throughout. Sample
her way with words in “Vedete? io son fedele” Another
example is the duet with Des Grieux “Oh, sarò la
più bella! ... Tu, tu amore? Tu?” Callas's performance
is rhythmically tight and the emotions of this fickle character
are expressed dramatically in a way that is often missing from
the more vocally even performances of Caballé, Freni
or Te Kanawa. The coloratura sections of the score hold no fear
for Callas where other singers have been caught out.
What a fascinating character she creates. She can invest phrases
with pathos and tragic grandeur. In “Sola, perduta, abbandonata”
memorable accents stay in the mind for days afterwards. The
delicate beginning of “In quelle trine morbide”,
which is so risky, asks for great concentration from the singer.
The tension rises as the voice has to swell with the orchestra
to an astonishing climax.
The voice of Giuseppe Di Stefano is at times rather thin but
his performance is satisfyingly dramatic - different but equal
to Jussi Björling and more youthful than Placido Domingo
or Luciano Pavarotti. For all the similarities critics cite
between Carreras and Di Stefano the older singer really wipes
the floor with Carreras in terms of phrasing and vocal quality
- when things get dramatic Carreras barks alarmingly on the
Chailly set. This is probably the best of Di Stefano's later
recordings (1957 onwards) along with the Lucia di Lammermoor
with Renata Scotto from 1959.
Di Stefano is an exciting Des Grieux using all his skill to
navigate what is by nature a lyrical voice through a very demanding
role. The elegance of his phrasing - sample “Ah manon
mi tradice ...” - means he does not bark or grunt like
so many Des Grieuxs when the tension escalates (“Oh, sarò
la più bella! ... Tu, tu amore? Tu?” or “No!
pazzo son!”). He is an unusually alert and youthful protagonist.
This pays dividends at the start of the opera where “Tra
voi, belle, brune e blonde” and “Donna non vidi
mai” enjoy a mixture of light and shade. There are times
such as in “Ah Manon mi tradice” when one might
like a richer and darker voice - perhaps more like Carlo Bergonzi
or Placido Domingo who are both amazing in some live records
- however Di Stefano achieved much through understatement. He
is lyrical where other tenors can sound like sergeant-majors
barking orders and, as with his Canio (Pagliacci), you
find that his way with words and rhythm generates its own excitement.
The Act 3 outburst “Ah Non V’avvicinate!”
and Act 4 “Manon senti amor mio” are perhaps the
most successful of all even though he has to achieve by art
what others more readily have by nature.
Jussi Björling is excellent throughout with Perlea although
his performance of “Tra voi belle” lacks humour.
Mario Del Monaco for Decca uses his huge ringing voice - by
nature ideal for this role - in a loud and inflexible way. Live
recordings by Del Monaco, Bergonzi and Richard Tucker are all
richer-voiced than Di Stefano with certain episodes sounding
far more exciting than any studio recording. That said, all
too often the results are overblown and hysterical with sobs,
wails and shouting disrupting the musical line. One can imagine
Carlo Bergonzi’s performance being astonishing in the
opera house but on record and with repeated listening the effects
can sound hammy.
Baritone Giulio Fioravanti had a lighter and more lyrical voice
than some other Lescauts on record but he is well matched with
Callas - for example in “Poichè Tu Vuoi Saper”.
His voice is flexible and smooth as well as being characterful
next to Di Stefano in Act 3. If the performance lacks the warm
sound of Renato Bruson for Sinopoli or Dwayne Croft for Levine
the results still sound excellent amid the team of fine artists
present in this recording - a well matched group. The vivid
personality of Robert Merrill stands out as the great strength
of the Perlea set and he has not been equalled on record. His
partnership with Jussi Björling at “Ansia, Eterna,
Crudel” is superbly characterized.
The sound is dry and somewhat harsh as re-mastered here - there
are times the voices cannot 'bloom' properly. The best recorded
sound belongs to the closely-miked Pavarotti/Freni/Levine recording
or the more distant sounding Sinopoli set (Chailly comes somewhere
in-between with Carreras and Te Kanawa (also digital stereo).
This recording could do with an overhaul - re-mastered from
the original tapes. With the EQ boosted and some reverberation
added it would probably come up well with the voices forward
and immediate; the technology has improved since this attempt
in 1997. It is only a shame that this was not made in stereo
like Callas's Il Barbiere di Siviglia or like Di Stefano's
contemporary recordings with Decca.
This is a dramatic and engaging performance of an exciting opera.
A few ‘raw’ patches notwithstanding this is a classic