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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 - 1924)
Manon Lescaut - opera in four acts (1893)
Montserrat Caballé (soprano) - Manon Lescaut; Plácido Domingo (tenor) - Chevalier Des Grieux; Noel Mangin (bass) - Geronte de Ravoir; Vicente Sardinero (baritone) - Lescaut; Robert Tear (tenor) - Edmondo; Richard van Allan (bass) - The innkeeper; Bernard Dickerson (tenor) - The dancing master; Delia Wallis (mezzo) - A singer; Robert Lloyd (bass) - Sergeant of the Royal Archers; Ian Partridge (tenor) - A lamplighter; Gwynne Howell (bass) - A naval captain
Ambrosian Opera Chorus, New Philharmonia Orchestra/Bruno Bartoletti
rec. 6-9, 11-15 July, 2, 29 December 1971, Brent Town Hall, London and No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
EMI CLASSICS 7359822 [57:28 + 58:38]

Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s first success after two immature operas. His publisher Ricordi was against the project and said that there was already a Manon - Massenet’s opera from 1884, which was well known. Puccini was not to be stopped. He said: ‘Manon is a heroine I believe in and therefore she cannot fail to win the hearts of the public. Why shouldn’t there be two operas about Manon? A woman like Manon can have more than one lover ... Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with a desperate passion.’ Puccini was right. Today his version of the melodrama is far more common on the opera stages than Massenet’s. It has been recorded a number of times, the earliest, as far as I know, in 1931 with La Scala forces under Lorenzo Molajoli and with Maria Zamboni and Francesco Merli in the leads. In the 1950s, with the LP record as a new medium suitable for longer works, there were at least four sets. Cetra from RAI under Federico Del Cupolo had Clara Petrella and Vasco Campagnano in the main roles. RCA recorded it in Rome under Jonel Perlea and Licia Albanese and Jussi Björling were the lovers. Columbia had La Scala’s chorus and orchestra under veteran Tullio Serafin and their standard couple Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano. Decca were at their standard venue, Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome with Francesco Molinari-Pradelli at the helm had their standard couple Renata Tebaldi and Mario Del Monaco. Then it was more than fifteen years before a competitor appeared in 1972, and that was the Bartoletti-conducted version now under scrutiny. Considering that this version is now over forty years old it is fair to place it in the historic recording group. There are some later offerings as well: Deutsche Grammophon with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Sinopoli and with Mirella Freni and Domingo; Decca with Metropolitan forces under James Levine and with Mirella Freni (again) and Luciano Pavarotti; Deutsche Grammophon once more with Chorus and Orchestra from La Scala under Riccardo Muti with Maria Guleghina and José Cura. There are also a number of live recordings plus several DVD sets but those mentioned here should be enough to choose between for potential buyers.
Bruno Bartoletti, died one day before his 87th birthday just a couple of weeks before I wrote this review. He devoted his musical life exclusively to opera and had a very wide repertoire, that encompassed also 20th century works. He premiered works by Malipiero, Ginastera and Penderecki. However, it was the core Italian repertoire that was closest to his heart. Here in 1971, when he was in his mid-40s, he was truly inspired. This is a swift, at times almost frantic reading, constantly on the move. This is good for several reasons: Manon Lescaut is marred by some longueurs and in lesser hands they can feel interminable. Also some over-sentimentality is swept away thanks to Bartoletti’s brisk approach. Brisk it is but not insensitive, and he can relax and linger over phrases of special beauty or with particularly strong emotions. Thus the last act, with the Manon and Des Grieux alone in the American desert, becomes just as heart-rending as one could wish. It is here that Puccini quotes extensively from his string quartet Crisantemi. In fact there are several self-quotations in this opera. The New Philharmonia Orchestra and the Ambrosian Opera are excellent, though one searches in vain for the more idiomatic Italian frisson that can be heard on the various Rome and Milano recordings listed above. The recorded sound is fully acceptable but could have been even better had EMI decided to re-master the tapes anew. They have chosen to issue the 1994 re-mastering again.
Producer Ronald Kinloch Anderson handpicked for the recording sessions a cast of outstanding British singers for the many comprimario roles. Three then-young basses make their mark in various degrees: Richard Van Allan as the innkeeper, Gwynne Howell as a naval captain and Robert Lloyd is a well profiled Sergeant of the Royal Archers. There are also good contributions from the whole cast with Noel Mangin’s Geronte less of a caricature than the inimitable Fernando Corena on the old Decca set, and Robert Tear a characterful though not very Italianate Edmondo.
Lescaut, Manon’s brother, is something of a stuffed shirt - which isn’t Puccini’s fault but lies with the librettists who helped to concoct this story. The somewhat underrated Vicente Sardinero does what he can to make the character come alive. He has some really meaty vocal moments where he shows his vocal capacity, though I have to admit that no one has surpassed Robert Merrill on the RCA recording. In saying that I must make a certain reservation for Renato Bruson on the Sinopoli set, which I haven’t heard.
The two leads, Montserrat Caballé and Plácido Domingo, were both in their early prime when this set was made. Caballé, who had her international breakthrough in 1965 had rapidly become one of the great sopranos, excelling in bel canto as well as more dramatic roles. Here she sings with lovely tone and her pianissimos, always her hallmark, are ravishing. I can’t help feeling, though, that she is dramatically a bit lethargic. In quelle trine morbide in act II is wonderful, however, and the duet in the same act, Oh, sarò la più bella! (CD 2 tr. 1) is charged with emotion. It is in the last act that she rises to sublime tragic heights: Sola, perduta, abbandonata (CD 2 tr. 16).
Plácido Domingo, having just turned thirty, was at about this time pouring out recordings, complete operas as well as recital albums and popular repertoire, at such speed that some critics were questioning his judgement. How long will he last? Well, he is still singing forty years later and has amassed a discography that surpasses almost every other singer. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Nicolai Gedda are the only possible competitors. As Des Grieux in 1971 he is in supple voice, Donna non vidi mai is golden-toned and his vitality and virility is overwhelming. The only thing that disturbs me is his unwillingness to sing softly more often. His total involvement, which has characterized his appearances and recordings throughout his career, makes us forgive him.
This recording, together with a somewhat later recording of I puritani and a 5-CD box with opera excerpts from the EMI catalogue, were issued as a tribute to Montserrat Caballé in connection with her 80th birthday which occurred on 12 April 2013. A little belatedly I send my heartfelt congratulations too with this review and will be back before long with the other two sets mentioned. This Manon Lescaut is a worthy memento of her marvellous singing.
Question is: is it the best available? The three sets from the 1950s - I disregard the Cetra set - all have their pros and cons. Serafin’s is a balanced reading and Callas and Di Stefano are deeply involved, though Di Stefano is hardly subtle. Molinari-Pradelli was a reliable though not very individual conductor, he has Tebaldi in creamy voice and Del Monaco in tremendous shape but unsubtle. He is better than in some other recordings, however. Perlea’s is a flexible reading with an individual stamp. Albanese knows the part inside-out and has charisma but vocally she is worn and dull-voiced. She has, though, the best Des Grieux on any set in Jussi Björling, who here surpasses even himself in marvellous musicality, beauty and dramatic involvement. Add to this the best Lescaut - Robert Merrill. Anyone buying his/her first Manon Lescaut are advised to choose the Perlea/Albanese/Björling set, but complement it with Bartoletti for better sound - the Perlea is in mono - and for generally first class singing. Of the more modern versions I am rather fond of Muti’s with Guleghina and Cura but I have found that when I want to play Manon Lescaut for pleasure it is the Perlea and the Bartoletti I take down.
Bottom line: With Bartoletti conducting at white heat and Caballé and Domingo in superb shape in their early prime this is a set that is worth anyone’s money.
Göran Forsling