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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Manon Lescaut (1893)
Licia Albanese (soprano) – Manon
Jussi Björling (tenor) – Des Grieux
Frank Guarrera (baritone) – Lescaut
Fernando Corena (bass) – Geronte
Thomas Hayward (tenor) – Edmondo
George Cehanovsky (baritone) – Innkeeper
Rosalind Elias (mezzo-soprano) – Solo Madrigalist
Alessio De Paolis (tenor) – Dancing Master
Calvin Marsh (bass) – Sergeant
James McCracken (tenor) – Lamplighter
Osie Hawkins (bass) – Captain
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Dimitri Mitropoulos
Live broadcast, 31 March 1956, from the Metropolitan Opera
XR remastering by Andrew Rose
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO158 [79:51 + 53:25]

Jussi Björling at the age of 27 left the Royal Stockholm Opera in 1938 as a permanent member of the ensemble and ventured on an international career with the Metropolitan Opera in New York as the centre of his activities. Up till then he had learnt more than 50 roles within eight years. After that he added only two new roles, Manon Lescaut in 1949 and Don Carlo in 1950. He also learnt the role of Calaf in Turandot for a gramophone recording but never sang it on stage. He recorded Manon Lescaut in studio in 1954 with Licia Albanese, as here, in the title role. The performance heard on this Pristine issue was recorded from a live broadcast on a Saturday matinée on 31 March 1956. It has been available before on the WHRA label, in harness with a live La bohème from 1948, both restored by Ward Marston in 2008 (review). Now, eleven years later, comes this XR remastering by Andrew Rose, and of course I was keen to know whether this could be an improvement on the already very good sound picture Ward Marston created for WHRA. The brightly lit and colourful orchestral introduction to the first act is as good place as any to make a comparison. And Marston’s transfer is certainly bright and colourful. Andrew Rose’s remastering is not brighter and more colourful, but it is rounder and warmer and leaves the impression of being in believable acoustics. Listening with headphones I immediately experienced a pseudo-stereo image with a spread over the imaginative stage, whereas the WHRA sound is one-dimensional and focused strictly in the middle. The voices also gain in bloom and Thomas Heyward’s excellent Edmondo, which is the first voice we hear, gives the impression of being more real. When Jussi Björling enters the proceedings, his voice has all the warmth one can wish. Licia Albanese’s slightly tremulous voice also has more bloom and at the same time her fragility is tangible. No technical wizardry can however make her sound youthful. She was in her mid-50s at the time and the ageing voice was also prominent in the studio recording made two years earlier. That she is deeply inside her character is however very clear, and listening through the whole performance – my intention from the beginning was to just sample a few scenes – was an utterly gripping experience. In the bargain I could also note that Frank Guarrera’s Lescaut was nastier tonally than I remembered and that Fernando Corena – nasty as well – was just as expressive as he always was, whether singing buffo roles or serious characters.

Sonically one can register that the prelude to act II with its flute solo is beautifully reproduced and that the Intermezzo, before act III gains a lot from the pseudo-stereo treatment. It is glowingly conducted by Mitropoulos. Glowing is also Jussi Björling’s singing at the end of act III – has never been surpassed, not even by himself. And the whole of act IV finds both singers at the height of their powers, down to a heart-rending Sola, perduta, abbandonata from Albanese.

As for the layout, Rose has managed to squeeze in the first two acts on CD 1 and the following two on CD 2, which makes for comfortable listening. On the WHRA issue the end of act II had to spill over to CD 2. Milton Cross’s commentaries are retained and as usual he wallows in colourful descriptions of the costumes at the curtain calls. Interestingly the spoken introduction before the performance is located as a bonus track after the performance, but on the other hand we get it in full – 7 minutes long as compared to the WHRA issue where it is reduced to a mere two minutes.

Applause is retained – and there are true ovations after Donna non vidi mai and In quelle trine morbide – but in the last act there is not the slightest sound after Sola, perduta, abbandonata – it goes seamlessly over to the finale. It does the audience credit that they are so sensitive. But of course the applause break out before the orchestra has finished the last bar at the very end.

All in all I would say that Andrew Rose’s remastering adds a lot to the experience of the performance. Those who own the WHRA set, already have a very good transfer but this performance is so good that it is worth owning in this new remastering. But by all means keep the WHRA, not least for Stephen Hastings’s comprehensive and illuminating liner notes.

Göran Forsling

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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