GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Manon Lescaut—Ana María Martínez (Manon Lescaut), Andrea Bocelli (Des Grieux), Javier Arrey (Lescaut), Matthew Peña (Edmondo), Mariam Battistelli (Musico), Maurizio Muraro (Geronte), Germán Olvera (Sergente, Oste), Valentino Buzza (Lampionaio), Francesco Salvadori (Comandante), David Astorga (Maestro di ballo); Coro de la Generalitat Valenciana; Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana; Plácido Domingo, conductor [Recorded in Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía, Valencia, Spain, on 24, 25, 28, 29 January and 1, 3 – 5 February 2014; DECCA 478 7490; 2 CD, 118:33; Available from Amazon, fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
When Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut premièred at the Teatro Regio di Torino on 1 February 1893, the thirty-four-year-old composer tasted the intoxicating wine of success that his previous operas, Le Villi and Edgar, had not managed to fully fortify. Puccini’s publisher, Giulio Ricordi, had justifiable reservations about a new operatic adaptation of Abbé Prévost’s L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut in the wake of the tremendous success of Jules Massenet’s Manon less than a decade earlier, but Puccini persisted. The gestation of the libretto of Manon Lescaut was extraordinarily difficult: by the time that Puccini’s score was ready for rehearsal, no fewer than seven pairs of hands had wielded the pen that produced the libretto, including those of the composer, Ricordi himself, and the eventual librettists of La bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. The result was an uneven but compelling storyline that examined Prévost’s characters from angles more straightforwardly romantic than those viewed from the pages of Massenet’s Manon. Musically, Manon Lescaut represents Puccini at the beginning of a creative journey that led to the great Twentieth-Century masterpieces La fanciulla del West and Turandot. Though Puccini’s harmonic language was already advanced in comparison with the scores of his contemporaries, Manon Lescaut remains substantially rooted in the Nineteenth Century, the broad efforts at levity in Act One and the amorous effusions of Manon and des Grieux redolent of the atmospheres of Verdi’s Falstaff and Otello. The unmistakable voice of Puccini is heard in every scene of Manon Lescaut, however, and his music for the young lovers at the center of the drama is a gift to talented singers with the ability to act with their voices without overdoing the sentimental theatrics.
Plácido Domingo’s endeavors as a conductor have been inconsistent. Not surprisingly, he has mostly proved a ‘singers’ conductor,’ but even his attention to singers’ needs has not been reliably beneficial. In Act One of this performance of Manon Lescaut, there are a number of passages in which Maestro Domingo’s tempi drag, challenging the singers and stalling the opera’s fast-moving drama. In both ‘Tra voi, belle’ and ‘Donna non vidi mai,’ the pacing expands the vocal lines nearly beyond the soloist’s capacity to sustain them, but in the opera’s subsequent three Acts Maestro Domingo achieves a steady progression of tempi that ably serve both composer and singers. He supports his Manon and des Grieux in scaling the heights of passion in their duets without controverting the organic flow of the music. After his prosaic account of Act One, Maestro Domingo provides impactful momentum, his uninhibited highlighting of Puccini’s shimmering Romanticism seconded by the committed playing of the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana. Puccini’s gifts for orchestration are already in evidence in the score of Manon Lescaut, and the Valencia players accept every challenge in the music with exuberance, not least in the wonderful Intermezzo that depicts the journey to Le Havre. The forceful singing of the Coro de la Generalitat Valenciana also contributes excellently to the cumulative effectiveness of the performance. The choristers’ singing is perfectly scaled to each of their lines, and they are convincing whether impersonating students, posh Parisians, or scolding townspeople of Le Havre.
In the Act Two Madrigale, ‘Sulla vetta tu del monte erri, o Clori,’ its melody adapted from the ‘Agnus dei’ from Puccini’s 1884 Messa a quattro voci, mezzo-soprano Mariam Battistelli is a firm-voiced, winningly musical Musico with a darkly opaque timbre. Likewise, tenor David Astorga is a Maestro di ballo who truly dances in his singing of ‘Vi prego, signorina, un po’ elevato il busto.’ In Act Three, tenor Valentino Buzza is a resonant Lampionaio, lighting his lamps with a swaggering account of ‘…e Kate rispose al Re,’ in which he makes easy going of his pair of top Gs. Baritone Germán Olvera takes on two rôles, the Oste in Act One and the Sergente in Acts Two and Three, and excels in both of them. Baritone Francesco Salvadori is a gruff but genial presence as the Comandante who takes pity on des Grieux’s desperation in Act Three.
Italian bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro portrays a Geronte who is a quintessential ‘dirty old man’ with an element of menace. The genteel humor of his voicing of ‘Questa notte, amico, qui poserò’ and ‘Dunque vostra sorella il velo cingerà’ in Act One does not completely disguise the character’s lechery, but the biting irony of his delivery of ‘Affè, madamigella, or comprendo il perchè di nostr’attesa!’ in Act Two also discloses a vulnerability that suggests that Manon was more to this Geronte than a roué’s trophy. Mr. Muraro credibly portrays a morally decrepit man without resorting to vocal distortion or silliness, and his singing is unfailingly resilient.
Edmondo begins the opera with ‘Ave, sera gentile, che discendi col tuo corteo di zeffiri e di stelle,’ and Matthew Peña sails through the music’s four G♯s and top A with disarming ease. The tenor’s good-natured provocation of des Grieux in ‘A noi, t’unisci, amico, e ridi’ is charming, and his admiration of the newly-arrived Manon in ‘Chi non darebbe a quella donnina bella il gentile saluto del benvenuto?’ is suitably enthusiastic. Mr. Peña’s comic falsetto is delightful, and his singing of ‘La tua ventura ci rassicura,’ its vocal line again hammering the singer’s passaggio, is accomplished. In a sense, Edmondo’s ‘Vecchietto amabile, incipriato Pluton sei tu!’ light-heartedly foreshadows the catalyst of the tragedy to come, and Mr. Peña sings it with unmistakable insinuation.
Baritone Javier Arrey is an understated Lescaut whose love for his sister never seems truly subjugated by pride. The high tessitura of Lescaut’s music is established immediately, the second note after his entrance in ‘Ehi! l’oste! Cavalier, siete un modello di squisitezza’ being a top F. Mr. Arrey manages his altitudinous music with comfort and pizzazz. He is spared neither by ‘Des Grieux, (qual già Geronte)’ in Act Two nor ‘Perduta è la partita!’ in Act Three, but Mr. Arrey responds to every rise in dramatic temperature—invariably conveyed by Puccini with ascending vocal lines—with clean, colorful singing.
Some operaphiles will never accept Andrea Bocelli as a ‘serious’ tenor. His previous DECCA recordings of Puccini’s Rodolfo in La bohème and Cavaradossi in Tosca revealed that he has much to offer the listener willing to set aside prejudices, but his career as a popular ‘crossover’ singer brands him as a fraud in the opinions of many self-professed opera lovers. The quality of Mr. Bocelli’s singing in this recording of Manon Lescaut makes this especially unfortunate. At des Grieux’s entrance with ‘L’amor? l’amor!? Questa tragedia, ovver commedia, io non conosco,’ it is immediately apparent that Mr. Bocelli is in good voice, his negotiation of the rise to top A unhesitating. The tessitura of his aria ‘Tra voi, belle, brune e bionde’ centers in the passaggio, where a dilettante or inadequately-trained tenor might be expected to falter, but Mr. Bocelli exhibits consummate mastery of Puccini’s vocal lines. His breathless wonder upon seeing Manon for the first time, expressed in ‘Dio, quanto è bella,’ is endearing, and his voicing of ‘Perdonate al dir mio’ is ingratiatingly awestruck. Mr. Bocelli sings ‘Donna non vidi mai simile a questa!’ idiomatically, rising to the pair of top B♭s with rapture. ‘Oh come gravi le vostre parole,’ his subsequent duet with Manon, is ardently-phrased by the tenor, the frequent ascents to top A and the top B♭ in unison with Manon secure and produced with a more covered sound than in many of his previous performances of music by Puccini. The Act Two duet with Manon, ‘Taci…tu il cor mi frangi,’ again taking him to top A♭, B♭, and another climactic top B♭ in unison with Manon, is sung with sonorous concentration. He captures the angst of ‘Ah! Manon, mi tradisce il tuo folle pensier’ without pushing his voice, and he makes of the optional top B in the scene with Manon and Lescaut an unforgettable exclamation of passion. His cries of ‘O Manon! O mia Manon!’ at the end of the act are harrowing. Mr. Bocelli movingly depicts des Grieux’s heartbreak in Act Three—here, too, often requiring excursions to the top of the range—with anguished but controlled singing of ‘Dietro al destino mi traggo livido’ and ‘Manon, disperato è il prego!’ He joins with Manon in a stimulating performance of ‘Ah! guardami e vedi com’io soggiaccio a questa angoscia amara,’ their unison top B♭ soaring, and Mr. Bocelli triumphs in the high lines of ‘Ah! non v’avvicinate!’ The depths of emotion with which he infuses his singing in Act Four are astonishing. In ‘Tutta su me ti posa,’ his andante mosso ‘Manon, senti, amor mio,’ and the heartrending andante espressivo con moto ‘Vedi, son io che piango,’ the sting of des Grieux’s despair contrasts with the beauty of Mr. Bocelli’s singing. He honors Puccini’s request of singing con passione infinita in ‘Un funesto delirio ti percuote, t’offende’ without sacrificing proper placement of his tone. There are instances of the open, slightly hollow sound that undermines Mr. Bocelli’s singing in the middle of his range, but he does some of the best singing of his recorded career on these discs. It is disappointing to think that anyone who loves Puccini’s operas would miss the opportunity to hear this performance because of suspicion of Mr. Bocelli’s credentials: vocally, this is a fine portrayal of des Grieux by any standard, and the singer’s genuine Italian magnetism is seductive.
Cesira Ferrani, Puccini’s first Manon, also created Mimì in La bohème, and the parallels between the rôles are made unusually noticeable by Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez’s freshly feminine but strong-willed singing as Manon on this recording. From her first entrance and her shy voicing of ‘Manon Lescaut mi chiamo,’ introducing the familiar motif that will recur throughout the opera, Ms. Martínez creates a character who is no passive ingénue. After relating that she is destined for convent, her resolute voicing of ‘Il mio fato si chiama: Voler del padre mio’ leaves no doubt that this Manon is not taking holy vows by choice. Her singing in the duet with des Grieux, ‘Vedete? Io son fedele alla parola mia,’ is bewitching, especially in the andante amoroso, ‘La queta casetta risonava di mie folli risate.’ Few singers make it clearer that Manon’s arrival in Paris is both an escape and a confinement. In Act Two, Ms. Martínez offers a gorgeous, expressively-phrased ‘In quelle trine morbide,’ encountering no trouble with the aria’s pair of top B♭s. Then, in her duet with Lescaut, ‘Per me tu lotti, per me, vile, che ti lasciai,’ she seems to rejoice in the rising vocal line cresting on an exposed top C, and her resolution of the passage with a harmonically unexpected high G♯ is jubilant. She also triumphs in the coloratura, trills, and top B and C in ‘Lodi aurate, mormorate’ and ‘L’ora, o Tirsi, è vaga e bella.’ After des Grieux’s entrance, her ‘Tu, tu, amore? Tu?!’ and ‘La dolce amica d’un tempo aspetta la tua vendetta’ are alternately despairing and hopeful. Her top C on ‘Addio!’ in Act Three is emotionally wrenching, and she is heartbreaking in her exchange with des Grieux, ‘Des Grieux, fra poco lungi sarò.’ Many sopranos fail in Act Four by overdoing the pathos. Ms. Martínez avoids this trap, giving her Manon reserves of tranquility that, as in Mimì’s death scene in La bohème, support her as her strength fades. She and Mr. Bocelli rocket to the unison top C in ‘Sei tu che piangi?’ with the agony of lovers who know that their final goodbye is at hand. In Manon’s largo aria ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata…in landa desolata,’ a piece that can seem self-indulgent and embarrassingly bathetic, Ms. Martínez shows her mettle as a tragic actress, making Manon’s death scene a reluctant but cathartic surrender rather than a flood of tantrums and fake tears. The timbre of Ms. Martínez’s natural instrument is one of amber and dark rum, but she sings Puccini’s vocal lines with lightness of tone and approach. In a few passages, there are discomfort and untidiness, but perfection in a rôle like Manon Lescaut is often indicative of detachment. Ms. Martínez is as involved a Manon as has yet been recorded, and the confidence of her singing is a joy to hear.
One of the few positive traits of preconceptions is that they can be overcome. In thoughtful performances of his operas, the still-prevalent notion that Puccini was a composer of second-rate, over-sentimentalized trifles is obliterated. When she sings with musical and dramatic acuity and fidelity to Puccini’s score, audiences will laugh with Manon Lescaut in the opera’s first half and cry with her in the second in spite of themselves. Ana María Martínez is a Manon Lescaut who inspires smiles and tears, and she has in Andrea Bocelli a des Grieux who never lets her down. She will only be betrayed by those who, mistaking this recording for an egotistical enterprise by a famous ‘popular’ singer rather than a legitimate artistic endeavor, dismiss this engaging Manon Lescaut unheard.