The Gramophone Choice
Mirella Freni sop Manon Lescaut Luciano Pavarotti ten Des Grieux Dwayne Croft bar Lescaut Giuseppe Taddei bar Geronte Ramón Vargas ten Edmondo Cecilia Bartoli mez Singer Federico Davia bass Innkeeper, Captain Anthony Laciura ten Dancing Master Paul Groves ten Lamplighter James Courtney bass Sergeant Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera / James Levine
Decca 440 200-2DHO2 (120‘ · DDD · S/T/t). Buy from Amazon
With Luciano Pavarotti a powerful Des Grieux, James Levine conducts a comparably big-boned performance of Manon Lescaut, bringing out the red-blooded drama of Puccini’s first big success while not ignoring its warmth and tender poetry in exceptionally full, vivid sound, with the voices well in front of the orchestra. In the title-role, Freni’s performance culminates in an account of the big Act 4 aria, more involving and passionate than any of the others on rival versions, with the voice showing no signs of wear, and with her sudden change of face at the words ‘terra di pace’ (‘a land of peace’) bringing a magical lightening of tone. That aria makes a thrilling climax, when too often this act can seem a let-down. In this, as in so much else, Levine conveys the tensions and atmosphere of a stage performance in a way that owes much to his experience at the Met.
More completely than other versions, it avoids the feeling of a studio performance. Reactions to Pavarotti as Des Grieux will differ widely. The closeness of balance means that in volume his singing rarely drops below mezzo-forte, but there’s little harm in having so passionate a portrait of Des Grieux as Pavarotti’s. Needless to say, the hero’s big emotional climaxes in each of the first three acts come over at full force. The rest of the cast is strong too, with Dwayne Croft a magnificent Lescaut.
Maria Callas sop Manon Lescaut Giuseppe di Stefano ten Des Grieux Giulio Fioraventi bar Lescaut Franco Calabrese bass Geronte Dino Formachini ten Edmondo Fiorenza Cossotto mez Singer Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan / Tullio Serafin
EMI download (120‘ · ADD · T/t) or Naxos 8 112031/2 (135’ · ADD). Recorded 1957. Buy from Amazon
Licia Albanese sop Manon Lescaut Jussi Björling ten Des Grieux Robert Merrill bar Lescaut Franco Calabrese bass Geronte Mario Carlin ten Edmondo Anna Maria Rota mez Singer Chorus and Orchestra of Rome Opera / Jonel Perlea
RCA Red Seal mono 88697 57906-2 (119’ · ADD · S). Recorded 1954. Buy from Amazon
The sets reissued here were recorded in Italy in the 1950s by top-line producers Walter Legge (EMI) and Richard Mohr (RCA) when there had only been three previous competitors regularly in the catalogues. A flood of subsequent versions followed but none has matched the charisma provided here by the central pairs. For EMI, di Stefano is at his most rhapsodic and sensual, rising to great heights of melodramatic agony on the Act 3 quayside at Le Havre or the Act 4 desert. If you want all that a degree or two more cultivated, more within the bar-lines but not a whit less exciting, Björling is in excellent voice on the rival set.
The Manons are similarly difficult to separate. Simply put, Albanese gives a more conventional frivolous girly portrait of Acts 1 and 2 (she’d performed the role onstage, Callas hadn’t) but doesn’t disappoint either in terms of tessitura or emotion in the turn-to-the-tragic of the final acts. Callas thinks herself well into what becomes, to begin with, a more serious, calculating Manon – and a very accurate Manon, too. Then, dying in the wilderness in Act 4, she produces a performance so harrowing that it should surely claim a prime spot on any fantasy best-of-Callas single disc.
Elsewhere, Perlea’s conducting is more impassioned than Serafin’s (compare the famous Intermezzo) and Naxos’s new transfer of the EMI set (from LPs, of course, not the original tapes) smooths out some of the spatial inconsistencies and ‘boxiness’ of earlier issues but is not as present as EMI’s last (1997) transfer. The RCA wins overall, but that Callas last scene is unmissable.