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

Manon Lescaut was third of Puccini’s operas but the first to have any success, and though it has maintained a place in the repertoire ever since, it has not had a place remotely comparable to those of La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly or Turandot. Since the first world war it was performed at Covent Garden only infrequently: three times in 1929, three times in 1936, then nothing until 1968 when a production cobbled together from bits of old sets (the last act was recycled from an old Act 3 of Die Walküre!) and with not a single Italian in the cast was given seven performances (and was fairly comprehensively damned by Harold Rosenthal in Opera magazine). The opera didn’t reappear until 1983 when it was given a star cast of Te Kanawa, Domingo and Thomas Allen (now available on video), but, incomprehensibly, never revived. There was then a 31 year gap until the present production, premiered in 2014 and revived in 2016, which was musically very fine both times, though the production was a trendy mediocrity at best.

I do find it a problematic piece; I don’t think Puccini had yet really found the dramatic feet that he so unerringly had from his next opera (La bohème) onwards, and as a result there seems to be an awful lot in Manon Lescaut where he is musically and dramatically treading water. Many places in Act 1, the first half of Act 2, including its 18th century pastiche, and much of Act 3 seem to me to be largely rather tedious. In Act 4 however, for the first time, Puccini shows his true genius; from those opening chords which so perfectly convey the desolate horror of both the place and the characters’ emotional states, through one of his greatest arias (Sola, perduta, abbandonata) to the heartbreaking final, fragmentary duet and concluding reprise of the opening chords, we see the hand of the master throughout.

The opera had a similarly chequered history at the New York Met, where it was absent between 1930 and 1949. The present recording is of a broadcast of a revival of the 1949 production for whose premiere Björling had learned the role of Des Grieux, and in which Olin Downes in the New York Times, while praising his singing, described him as “as unromantic a figure as Des Grieux as could readily be imagined”. By this 1956 revival, he was “under the skin” of Des Grieux to a much greater extent (though I doubt that he looked any more romantic).  Björling had, of course, one of the great voices of the 20th century. His was one of those incredibly rare voices which did not seem to have any registers; there is never any sense of moving from chest to head, of the passagio being a danger point or of the top notes having a different quality than the lower ones. The voice is one seamless cloth, effortless and with no change in timbre or vibrato from top to bottom. In this he is like the great Russian baritone, Pavel Lisitsian - and these two singers present the same problem for me. Both apparently think that producing this flow of glorious sound is sufficient unto itself, and as a result both can often be bland interpreters. Fortunately, probably as a result of the galvanising baton of Mitropoulos, Björling is at his most alive in this recording. Des Grieux’s first aria “Tra voi belle” is sung with great elegance and a wonderful legato (his entire performance is a masterclass in that vocal quality) and in “Donna non vidi mai” the very slow tempo does not drag because of Björling’s (and Mitropoulos’) shaping and momentum. However, we do get a first hint of a failing that becomes more important as the opera progresses and the action turns tragic. The aria is marked “con accento appassionato” and ends “con slancio” and “rimanendo estatico”, but Björling’s own character does not really admit of this. Des Grieux’s part is constantly marked with directions such as “con forza crescente”, “con intensa passione”, ”con disperazione”, “con passione infinita” and though Björling is effective in these places, he cannot throw himself into them as Pertile or Gigli could. It must, however, be acknowledged that to many an Anglo-Saxon ear, this is to his credit rather than being a failing.

Manon is sung by Licia Albanese, who had made her Met debut in 1940 and remained at the Met for 26 seasons until she was constructively dismissed in 1966 by Rudolf Bing by being given a single performance in the 1965/6 season. As a result, she left without any sort of acknowledgement of her quarter-century’s service. Whatever Bing’s qualities as a manager, he could be a deeply unsympathetic character in the way that he simply discarded artists who had given decades of service - he did exactly the same with Lauritz Melchior. Like a lot of prima donnas of that generation, she lived to extreme old age, dying as recently as 2014 at the age of 105. Although she was only 46 at the time of this broadcast, she sounds a lot older, though in an unexpected way. The tone itself sounds quite fragile and “old-ladyish”, lacking the necessary juice for Puccini and there are many little glottal gulps (for example in “In quelle trine”), but the top is still absolutely solid with several splendid top B flats. Her performance is very fine, full of character and alive to Manon’s varying moods. Her “Sola, perduta, abbandonata”, if not in the Olivero class, is a very good performance which really conveys the character’s fear and desperation, again helped by Mitropoulos’s conducting.

The rest of the cast are really just bit parts; even poor old Lescaut gets nothing with any real meat in it to sing. Here he is Frank Guarrera, an American baritone who was also a long-standing member of the Met company, making his debut there in 1948 and singing for 28 consecutive seasons at the house. Although not in quite the same league as Robert Merrill, who sang the part in the RCA recording of 1954 with Albanese and Björling, he gives a fine performance of this ungrateful role, fully in character at all times. The Geronte of Fernando Corena is excellent. He too was a Met stand-by, giving over 700 performances there between 1954 and 1978 in comic and character parts. His voice here is hardly less resonant and juicy than Guarrera’s and much above the quavery geriatric who is often given this part.

Mitropoulos’ conducting is, as I have already indicated, one of the reasons for the excellence of the performance. I was a little disconcerted by the beginning of the first act, in which he goes beyond the “allegro brillante” of the marking into the manic, as though trying to out-Toscanini Toscanini, but he soon settles and his reading is full of detail and character. Tempi can be a little extreme in both directions later on too, but nothing is gratuitous.

Andrew Rose’s remastering is, as always, excellent. The basic sound is a little shrill but otherwise very good for the date and provenance, and the voices come over with great presence. Only in the ensemble toward the end of Act 3 are Björling and Albanese drowned, and that is presumably the result of their being at the back of the stage rather than any fault with the recording itself.

This set is well worth acquiring in every respect. It is a better performance than the commercial RCA set with Björling and Albanese, and indeed is one of the finest and most committed performances by the tenor that has come down to us.

Paul Steinson

Previous reviews: Ralph Moore ~ Göran Forsling

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