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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 - 1924)
Manon Lescaut - opera in four acts (1893)
Licia Albanese (soprano) - Manon Lescaut; Jussi Björling (tenor) - Chevalier Des Grieux; Fernando Corena (bass) - Geronte de Ravoir; Frank Guarrera (baritone) - Lescaut; Thomas Hayward (tenor) - Edmondo; George Cehanovsky (bass) - The innkeeper; Alessio De Paolis (tenor) - The dancing master; Rosalind Elias (mezzo) - A singer; Calvin Marsh (bass) - Sergeant of the Royal Archers; James McCracken (tenor) - A lamplighter; Osie Hawkins (bass) - A naval captain
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Dimitri Mitropoulos
rec. live radio broadcast 31 March 1956, Metropolitan Opera House, New York
No libretto
Ambient Stereo XR Remastering
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO158 [78:51 + 48:08]

Newly released by Pristine in their splendid XR remastering, this recording of Puccini’s third opera and his first great success has claims to superiority over the famous studio recording of two years previously with the same two principals, especially now that its refurbished sound allows us to hear more vividly the drama and immediacy of a live, stage performance which clearly caught fire. Of course both this and the studio version were in mono sound, which means that however well this live broadcast has been refurbished, the sound will lack the velour of modern digital recordings, but Pristine’s engineer Andrew Rose has greatly enhanced its presence by rendering it in “Ambient Stereo”, even if he has been unable to remove completely the papery overlay and distortion in climaxes.

The cast here is clearly inspired by the extra verve and indulgence Mitropoulos’s conducting imparts to proceedings; the whole performance is irradiated by a special thrust and energy. Perlea made a fine job of the studio recording, but Mitropoulos brings a swing, lift and lilt to this that I hear in no other recording of this most tuneful of Puccini’s operas. My only reservations are that the famous Intermezzo is a bit choppy, lacking the grand Romantic thrust brought to it by Sinopoli and Levine, and the substitution of Met regular Frank Guarrera, fine artist though he was, for Robert Merrill must give some cause for regret, as Merrill was an incomparable Lescaut in that studio version under Perlea. Nonetheless, Guarrera is a strong presence and the supporting cast is really first-rate, featuring half a dozen famous – or soon to be famous – names, like Rosalind Elias, at the beginning of her forty-year career at the Met, and James McCracken – very noticeable as an Otello-voiced Lamplighter. Thomas Hayward is once more an elegant Edmondo, as he was in the 1949 recording; Corena is a burly, vivid Geronte.

This is the best all-round of the four recordings we have of Björling as Des Grieux, a role he sang only twenty-five times in total over his career but which was surely one of his most successful. There is a good live recording from 1949 on the Naxos label where he is well partnered by Dorothy Kirsten but obviously in inferior sound and another broadcast from Sweden in 1959 where he sings in Italian but everyone else sings in Swedish, which is hardly ideal. There is not so great a difference between them that I would urge anyone to replace the 1954 studio version with this one – both are splendid but certain things like Björling’s top notes are even more striking live here and he is in gleaming, voice throughout, as indeed he usually was right up until his untimely death. For some reason, even though this is two years after their studio recording, both he and Albanese sound more youthful here, live on stage, although she cannot shake off a certain matronliness of tone and a glottal catch seemingly intrinsic to her voice – but what a lovely “In quelle trine morbide” she sings, earning deserved applause. She has such great technique, too: pinging top notes, secure trills, lovely integration of registers – a proper singer. You can hear just how big their voices are when they reach the climax of their duets; neither drowns out the other, both are very audible and it’s thrilling.

It is also gratifying to hear the ecstatic audience reaction to highlights like “Donna non vidi mai” even if they do interrupt the action – and I know some people like the extra atmosphere imparted by the inclusion of Milton Cross’ announcements; his opening announcement has been included as an addendum to CD2.

Ralph Moore
Survey of Manon Lescaut recordings

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