GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Manon Lescaut—Anna Netrebko (Manon Lescaut), Yusif Eyvazov (Il cavaliere Renato des Grieux), Armando Piña (Lescaut), Carlos Chausson (Geronte di Ravoir), Benjamin Bernheim (Edmondo), Erik Anstine (L’oste, Un sergente), Patrick Vogel (Il maestro di ballo, Un lampionaio), Szilvia Vörös (Un musico), Simon Shibambu (Un comandante di marina), Daliborka Miteva (Madrigalista), Martina Reder (Madrigalista), Cornelia Sonnleithner (Madrigalista), Ariana Holecek (Madrigalista); Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Marco Armiliato, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during performances at the 2016 Salzburger Festspiele, Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg, Austria, in August 2016; Deutsche Grammophon 479 6828; 2 CDs, 127:50; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
His early operas Le villi and Edgar, both scores with undeniable though hardly abundant merits, never having claimed places in the standard repertory, it is with Manon Lescaut that Giacomo Puccini's three-decade career as the master of sentimental music drama began in the esteem of most opera lovers. Premièred at the Teatro Regio di Torino on 1 February 1893, with soprano Cesira Ferrani—also Puccini’s first Mimì in La bohème three years later—in the title rôle and tenor Giuseppe Cremonini as Chevalier des Grieux, an adaptation for the Italian stage of Abbé Prévost’s 1831 saga L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut for was a daring choice for the thirty-something composer and his proponents. Though it was not until eight months after the première of Manon Lescaut that Jules Massenet’s Manon reached Italy, news of the phenomenal success of Massenet’s opera had flowed southward over the Alps for nearly a decade by the time that Manon first met her tragic end in italiano on the stage of Milan’s Teatro Carcano on 19 October 1893. Respectively published by the rival firms Casa Sonzogno and Casa Ricordi, there is no doubting that Massenet’s and Puccini’s scores were subjected to publicity-stunt rivalries. Intriguingly, though, it was a Manon judiciously reworked to more closely resemble Manon Lescaut that besieged Milan. Gone was Massenet’s pivotal Cours de la Reine scene, but ‘in’ were a new, evocative Italian translation of the libretto and widespread revisions to the score. Despite Puccini’s vow to eschew the ‘powder and minuets’ of Massenet’s quintessentially Gallic retelling of Prévost’s story, there is a certain heady sophistication amidst the churning emotions of Manon Lescaut. As Puccini asserted and the heroine of this recording of Manon Lescaut, internationally-acclaimed soprano Anna Netrebko, would surely agree, as multidimensional a woman as Manon can have more than one lover, and the Italian composer pressed his suit with music that retains its magnetism after 113 years.
Puccini the orchestrator seldom receives the appreciation that he deserves, even his La fanciulla del West and Turandot, Puccini’s most progressive works, seldom being praised for the ingenuity of their scoring. From the bustling open pages of Act One to the opera’s evocative Intermezzo, Manon Lescaut exhibits the flair for orchestration that would produce its most luscious fruits in the final fifteen years of Puccini’s career. Under the well-honed, authentically Italianate guidance of conductor Marco Armiliato, a familiar presence in performances of Puccini repertory throughout the world, the Münchner Rundfunkorchester musicians provide this Manon Lescaut with a vibrant setting redolent both of Puccini’s Romanticized Italy and of Prévost’s France. An aptly French cosmopolitanism permeates the orchestral playing, complemented by welcome doses of take-no-prisoners Italian temperament and Teutonic discipline. The high standard set by the instrumentalists’ work is upheld by the excellent singing of the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor. Whether portraying the rowdy patrons of the Amiens tavern or the abusive populace of Le Havre, the choristers balance characterful singing with well-schooled ensemble. The efforts of both orchestra and chorus benefit from Armiliato’s sensible tempi. The conductor provides his leading lady with the frame in which to display her portrait of Puccini’s tempestuous heroine without seeming to passively indulge her. There is no doubt that the soul of this Manon Lescaut resides upon the stage, but the spine of the performance is in the pit, where it belongs.
In generations past, the concept of ‘festival casting’ suggested a level of artistic quality in the context of a major festival like the Salzburger Festspiele that exceeded the everyday achievements of opera companies in their regular seasons. Salzburg’s cast for this Manon Lescaut recaptures some of that now-elusive allure, filling supporting rôles with voices of leading-rôle potential. Anchoring the relay team of promising young artists, South African bass-baritone Simon Shibambu delivers the Comandante di marina’s few words with wonderful presence. Singing attractively, American bass Erik Anstine impresses as both L’oste in Act One and Un sergente in Act Three. Also embracing double duty, German tenor Patrick Vogel voices Il maestro di ballo’s ‘Un po’ elevato il busto’ in Act Two and Un lampionaio’s ‘...e Kate rispose al re’ in Act Three with fine, focused tones.
Singing the rôle of the anonymous Musico who serenades Manon in Act Two, Hungarian mezzo-soprano Szilvia Vörös, winner of the First Éva Marton International Singing Competition, dispatches ‘Sulla vetta tu del monte erri, o Clori’ lusciously, her timbre ideally suited to the music. She is backed dulcetly by the Madrigalisti of sopranos Daliborka Miteva and Martina Reder and mezzo-sopranos Cornelia Sonnleithner and Ariana Holecek. The ladies create a formidable ensemble, uniting their voices in a wall of sound that is handsomely adorned by the intricately-woven tapestry of Puccini’s faux-Baroque madrigal.
The singing of French tenor Benjamin Bernheim as Edmondo is one of this performance’s foremost strengths. His spirited depiction of the boisterous young student’s humor and hubris enlivens Act One. The opera’s rollicking opening scene begins with an account of ‘Ave, sera gentile, che discendi col tuo corteo di zeffiri e di stelle’ in which Bernheim’s vocalism is as fresh and free as the music itself. Later, he sings ‘Addio mia stella, addio mio fior’ with insinuating subtlety. The irony of ‘Vecchietto amabile, incipriato Pluton sei tu!’ is anything but subtle, but it is sung so appealingly that it for once seems merely jocular rather than truly mean-spirited. Bernheim’s Edmondo is a fun-loving fellow who makes easy going of the top G♯s, As, and B of his part. The only regret inspired by Bernheim’s performance is that Edmondo appears only in Act One.
Spanish bass-baritone Carlos Chausson is a great asset to the performance as the vindictive roué Geronte di Ravoir, the veteran singer’s voice still as steady as the character’s practiced flirtation is vile. With his vivid but unexaggerated singing in Act One, Chausson makes Geronte’s infatuation with Manon palpable: listening to his exchanges with Lescaut, the old man’s rapacious lust is unmistakable. In Act Two, his singing of ‘Affé, madamigella, or comprendo il perché di nostr’attesa!’ exudes the impotent rage of a man whose pride has been deflated by his lover’s betrayal. Chausson’s Geronte is not all bluster, however: in the quieter moments of his interaction with Manon before Des Grieux’s arrival, there are suggestions of gentleness and legitimate affection in his demeanor. There is no question that Geronte is a caddish, spoiled misogynist, but Chausson, consistently singing well, gives the hateful codger an unexpected vein of humanity.
The rôle of Lescaut, Manon’s brother in Puccini’s opera [he is her cousin in Massenet’s Manon], is in many ways a thankless part. The casts of many performances of Manon Lescaut are promoted as Soprano Lead, Tenor Lead, and Some Other People, but a lackluster Lescaut can markedly dim the wattage of several of Puccini’s most illuminating scenes. In this Manon Lescaut, Mexican baritone Armando Piña is a Lescaut who works hard to match the vocal lumina emitted by his high-profile colleagues. Lescaut is something of an enigma, his agenda never wholly obvious, but Piña lets the music speak for itself. Taking charge of Act One like an amiable but self-serving master of ceremonies, his Lescaut seems to be at the center of every plot, and the baritone voices ‘Certo, certo, ho più sana la testa di quel che non sembri’ robustly. In Act Two, this Lescaut sounds as bored as his sister, and Piña sings ‘Ah! che insieme delizioso! Sei splendida e lucente!’ with a wonderful flash of boyish glee. The contrast with ‘È il vecchio tavolier (per noi) tal quale cassa del danaro universale!’ could hardly be greater. Manon is an unabashed but idealistic materialist, but Lescaut, no less an opportunist, always has an eye turned towards the consequences of his and others’ decisions. Piña does not ignore the callousness of Lescaut’s character, but, like Chausson, he strives to make the part atypically sympathetic. Lescaut’s tessitura is high, and there are rough patches in Piña’s negotiations of it, but his is an earnest, ably-sung performance that reflects thorough preparation.
Netrebko’s husband off the stage, Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov joins her compellingly on the stage in this performance of Manon Lescaut, strengthening the drama by making Renato des Grieux a genuine protagonist rather than merely another of Manon’s admirers. Entering in Act One with the brooding sensitivity of Werther or Hoffmann, Eyvazov sings ‘L’amor! L’amor?! Questa tragedia, ovver commedia, io non conosco!’ impetuously, notes and words pealed out insouciantly. The tenor’s voice tends to blare above the stave, especially when dynamics rise above mezzo forte, and his vocalism can be monotonous. Still, the delicacy of ‘Tra voi, belle, brune e bionde si nasconde giovinetta vaga e vezzosa’ is not lost on him, and he phrases ‘Donna non vidi mai simile a questa!’ with red-blooded passion that crests on easy, secure top B♭s. In duet with Manon, this Des Grieux holds nothing back, matching his partner decibel for decibel. Bursting in on Manon’s comfortable but listless cohabitation with Geronte in Act Two, Eyvazov depicts a figure not unlike Mozart’s Donna Elvira, disenfranchised and entranced at once. His elation turning to desperation as Geronte’s vengeance is enacted, the tenor’s singing grows ever more intense, culminating in a piercing ‘Ah! Manon, mi tradisce il tuo folle pensier’ of cataclysmic dramatic force. Their timbres are very different, the younger tenor’s brighter and more metallic, but Eyvazov’s daring, driven singing in this performance often recalls that of Francesco Merli, the first recorded Des Grieux. Act Three of Manon Lescaut is a veritable obstacle course for the tenor, and the fact that Eyvazov emerges unscathed from the act’s final anguished utterance is a testament to the solidity of his technique. His deliveries of ‘Dietro al destino mi traggo livido’ and ‘Manon, disperato, è il mio prego!’ are viscerally exciting, but it is his ‘Ah! non v’avvicinate! Ché, vivo me, costei nessun strappar potrà!’ that lingers in the memory. The upper register is pushed, but it responds without serious weakness, only an openness on the highest tones prompting lasting concern. In many performances of Manon Leacaut, the expiring heroine dominates Act Four to such an extent that the brief act seems like an extended solo scene. Here, though, Eyvazov does not allow the listener to forget that this is also Des Grieux’s tragedy. The desolation of his ‘Tutta su me ti posa, o mia stanca diletta’ is wrenching, and he heeds Puccini’s ‘con passione infinita’ instructions in his pained articulation of ‘Un funesto delirio ti percote, t’offende.’ Also featured alongside Netrebko in selections on her Deutsche Grammophon disc Verismo and recently acclaimed as Calàf under Gustavo Dudamel’s baton in a Wiener Staatsoper revival of Turandot, Eyvazov is rapidly establishing his credentials as a valuable interpreter of Italian repertory. More refulgent than refined, he is not yet a highly-polished artist, but as recorded here he is a savvy, sonorous Des Grieux.
Thus far in her career, Manon Lescaut is the Puccini heroine that Netrebko has most made her own. Her Mimì in La bohème, unfailingly touching, has generally lacked the unforgettable frailty of Rosanna Carteri’s portrayal or Mirella Freni’s unaffected sweetness, but the Russian soprano’s Manon Lescaut, not unlike her much-appreciated depiction of Massenet’s Manon, possesses consummate musicality and a sharply-etched dramatic profile. Netrebko’s is not a conventionally Italianate voice, but it can be and in this performance often is a very beautiful one. Her rôle début as Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin in Dresden, earlier this year, was nothing short of revelatory, clearly indicating one path open to Netrebko as her career progresses. At times, her Manon in this performance wields a Wagnerian grandeur, honoring the tradition of Marcella Pobbe and Renata Tebaldi, both persuasive Elsas, albeit in Italian. Missing from this performance are Licia Albanese’s near-perfect command of Puccini’s style, Dorothy Kirsten’s vocal unflappability, and Magda Olivero’s boundless charisma, but Netrebko’s Manon is a memorable portrayal in its own right, an insightfully-concocted melange of the best aspects of her artistry. When she intimates ‘Manon Lescaut mi chiamo’ in Act One, this Manon immediately has Des Grieux—and the listener, for that matter—in the palm of her hand. Innocence, while not inherently objectionable, equates with inexperience and missed opportunities, and Netrebko is a Manon who is anxious to get on with the business of living. For her, love is an adventure, not a commitment. Nevertheless, Netrebko’s singing of ‘Una fanciulla povera son io’ radiates sincerity, and the sheltered young girl’s contrived coquetry is gradually transformed into fanciful jubilation as she duets with Des Grieux. In Act Two, Netrebko sings Manon’s aria ‘In quelle trine morbide’ beautifully, soaring to the top B♭s without worry, and her top C in the subsequent duet with Lescaut gleams. Netrebko is at her most charming in Manon’s gavotte, ‘L’ora, o Tirsi, è vaga e bella,’ phrasing the number with elegance. Reunited with Des Grieux, she unleashes a deluge of emotion in ‘Tu, tu, amore? Tu? Sei tu, ah, mio immenso amore? Dio!’
Epitomized by her readings of ‘Io voglio il tuo perdono’ and the desperate outbursts of Act Three, not least the ecstatic top C on her dejected ‘Addio’ to Des Grieux and Leacaut, this is Netrebko’s most expressive performance on disc to date; and, along with her touching portrayal of the title rôle in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, also her most beautifully-sung. In the brief span of Act Four, Netrebko the diva is wholly absorbed by Manon Lescaut the tragic heroine. She voices ‘Sola... perduta, abbandonata... in landa desolata!’ with enthralling immediacy, demanding that the listener look with her into the face of death. The climactic top B♭ is her cry of surrender, the moment at which reality banishes her illusions. As Netrebko inflects the words, ‘Io t’amo tanto... e muoio!’ becomes a sort of philosophical mantra of her Manon. Her ‘Le mie colpe... travolgerà l’oblio... ma... l’amor mio... non muore’ is shaped less by selfishness and self-pity than by a longing for Des Grieux to cling to memories of a happier past. The deficiency of Act Four of Manon Lescaut is that, unlike Mimì’s, Cio-Cio San’s, and Liù’s demises, the soprano must consciously strive to give Manon’s death histrionic gravity. Netrebko succeeds, not by overdoing the melodrama of the opera’s final scene but by having theretofore created a Manon who engages the senses and garners the listener’s affection. The soprano’s experience with Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder is put to good use: hers is a Manon Lescaut whose final moments movingly convey a Straussian acceptance of the inevitable. The tragedy is not to die but to die without having made peace with life. Aided by a fine ensemble of singers and musicians and a conductor whose sensibilities harmonize with her own, one of today’s most famous singers here bequeaths to posterity a recording of an interpretation that nobly justifies her reputation.