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Recordings

Giacomo Puccini: Manon Lescaut
12 Nov 2006

PUCCINI: Manon Lescaut

This beautiful production premièred in 1980 and was the first live-telecast from the Met internationally relayed.

Giacomo Puccini: Manon Lescaut

Renata Scotto (Manon Lescaut), Placido Domingo (Des Grieux), Pablo Elvira (Lescaut), Renato Capecchi (Geronte), Philip Creech (Edmondo), Mario Bertolino (L’oste), Isola Jones (musico), Andrea Velis (maestro di ballo), Julien Robbins (sergente), John Carpenter (lampionaio), Russell Christopher (commandante). Metropolitan Orchestra and Chorus conducted by James Levine. Production by Gian Carlo Menotti, TV director: Kirk Browning.

DG 073 424-1 [DVD]

$26.99  Click to buy

Ten years later I was in New York and attended. Freni sang the title role and was stunning, looking and singing like she was 25 instead of 55. The production still looked fresh and fine, too, and it still does on this wonderful DVD. I’ve often taken offence at some self-styled sophisticated New Yorkers who think of their co-opera visitors as boorish and provincial because they applaud the sets (as happens here twice) but I can fully understand the delight of many Americans who have come for enjoyment and give the set designer (Desmond Wheeley, responsible for the brilliant costumes too) his rightful due.

Kudos too for Maestro Levine who stops his orchestra so that Domingo can have his applause after ‘Donna non vidi mai’. A lot of the time the applause is generous, though not overenthusiastic till the audience at last warms up. Of course at the time many spectators still had the sound of Tucker, Bergonzi and even Del Monaco and Björling in their ears. Honesty however commands me to say that the Spanish tenor is not to be despised in this very long and difficult role. The tone is homogenously golden, from bottom to top and without nasality. Stylistically he is faultless as usual and also as usual piano or a melting pianissimo is not in his vocabulary. If one listens carefully one notices that his legato is not 100% perfect as he often takes in a small breath, especially when he sails into the head register. Only at the fiendishly difficult ‘Guardate, pazzo son’ it becomes clear that a sure high B is not his anymore and the voice grates on for two seconds. The same happens in the last act duet where he cannot avoid flattening. Yet, there has been no better Des Grieux around for a quarter of a century.

Renata Scotto, already 47 at the time and thus more than 30 years older than the role she is assuming, has one of her Indian Summer days. In the first act she sounds and looks appropriately young and skittish, though not naïve. She sings an intense ‘In quelle trine morbide’, showing us with her messa di voce what an experienced singer can do. She continues in that vein till the passionate outburst of ‘Sola, perduta, abandonata’. Her well-known shrillness is not much in evidence and even when it appears she is such an experienced artist it becomes part of well-thought out interpretation. Pablo Elvira starts out with a few rough patches but soon gives us a well-rounded portrait of the most unthankful baritone role in the Italian repertoire. Almost no one can improve on Renato Capecchi’s Geronte (I heard Italo Tajo and he came near) while Philip Creech, with Afro-haircut in these early politically-correct days, is a lively though somewhat throaty Edmondo.

Apart from often great singing, great sets and costumes there is great acting too. A practical theatre genius as Gian Carlo Menotti (and his stage assistants too) must have done quite a lot of thinking. How to strike a balance between acting that still has meaning and is visible in the Met’s Family Circle without looking ridiculous during close-ups on small TV-screens? Menotti succeeds magnificently, helped of course by Scotto and Domingo who were always stage animals. There is nothing hammy in their acting. There are no over gross gestures which can be so easily ridiculed in cheap humour shows: remember Del Monaco in his Japanese telecasts? There are literally dozens of fine acting touches by everybody on the stage, important in those gone days without titles. TV director Kirk Browning probably has studied the production book till he could dream it as he misses nothing while at the same time he too succeeds in finding that balance between house and home audience.

Musically the whole of it is energetically and sympathetically conducted by James Levine who welds everything and everybody in one long and continuing sweep; no mean feat for an opera where there is such a deep abyss between the first and the later acts. Those too were the days when during the lovingly sculpted intermezzo the cameras remain on conductor and orchestra without a lot of extra musical activity on the scene to draw all attention too. Probably the best sung and best acted Manon Lescaut to be found on DVD.

Jan Neckers

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