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PUCCINI: Manon Lescaut

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GiacomoPuccini (1858 - 1924)

Manon Lescaut

A dramma lirico

in four acts, to a libretto by Domenico Oliva, Luigi Illica and others, afterthe novel L'histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by theAbbe Prevost


Puccinilooks to me more like the heir of Verdi than any of his rivals

G. B. Shaw, writing after the London premiere ofManon Lescaut


In the light ofShaw's comment, quoted above, it is worth remembering that Manon Lescaut

- Puccini's first successful opera - and Falstaff - Verdi's triumphantlast - were premiered within nine days of each other in the early winter of1893. For their musical contemporaries, (some of the younger ones surely deeplyjealous of Puccini), it was a poignant moment as they sensed the mantle passfrom the older to the younger man; the welfare of Italian opera was in new,safe hands and remained so until Puccini's death 31 years later.

Not, however,that the completion of Manon Lescaut had been straightforward. Beforethe first night it caused its composer more trouble than any of his later operas,with constant re-writing and editing, seemingly endless amendments andadditions to the libretto by numerous colleagues (even by the composerhimself); and radical changes to the first act after the first night. Thus itwas a rather different opera that was 're-premiered' at La Scala, Milan a year after the 'original' first performance in Turin. Perhaps surprisingly to us, a century later, ManonLescaut was greeted with far greater initial enthusiasm than some of Puccini'slater works; La Boheme and Madama Butterfly both suffered frombad first nights, though both recovered and overtook their predecessor inpopularity.

Manon Lescaut was soon seen outside Italy; at Covent Garden and in Philadelphia in 1894, but only in 1907 did it reach theMetropolitan, New York, where it boasted a cast including EnricoCaruso and Lina Cavalieri. Later interpreters were Martinelli, Gigli, LucreziaBori and Claudia Muzio but after 1929 there was a gap of twenty years before itwas staged there once more. When it was, the Met again cast from strength andin the new production which opened on 23rd November 1949, Dorothy Kirsten andJussi Bjorling took the leading roles. This recording, from the third performanceof that series, shows why they were both so greatly admired by Met audiences.

Jussi Bjorling excelled in this opera. Des Grieux is suave, enamoured andgrief-stricken by turns, and the lustrous tenor catches each nuance of thecharacter. In the opening few minutes he progresses from charming flirt ("Travai belle") to smitten beau ("Oh, come siete bella!")as he deplores the plans for Manon's installation in a convent. After herdeparture, the full-throated glory of "Donna non vidi mai\ rightlyearns the audience's applause; but it is not just full-throated. It is tender,wonder-full, passionate and never strained. So it is through every mood -bitterness in the second act, desperation in the third and concern for thedying Manon in the last. Bjorling's is a beautifully considered and deliveredinterpretation.

Dorothy Kirstenwas blessed with a light pure lyric soprano, particularly well suited toManon's naivete in the first act. Vocally, the horrors of her deportation in Act3 and desolation in Act 4 do not come so naturally to Kirsten, and yet" Sola,perduta, abbandonata..." with its final "no! non voglio morir"and last duet with des Grieux are most moving. It would be easy to overplay thistragedy and yet Kirsten avoids that danger, making the tragedy all the morereal.

Puccini wroteabout his approach to the composition of Manon Lescaut "...I shallfeel it as an Italian, with desperate passion"; he would surely have beenwell satisfied with this performance.


Manon Lescaut was first performed on 1st February 1893 at the Teatro Regio, Turin; the revised version was performed on 7th February 1894 at La Scala, Milan.


Paul Campion



CD I: Act I

[1] The opera is set in the second half of theeighteenth century. The opening scene reveals a large square in Amiens, near the Paris Gate. To the right there is an avenueand to the left an inn, with a porch and tables outside. An outside staircaseleads to the first floor of the inn. Students, townsfolk, girls and soldiersstroll in the square and in the avenue, while other groups stand chatting orsitting at the tables drinking and gambling. It is evening and Edmondo and hisfriends welcome Des Grieux, a fellow-student, as they watch the girls pass. [2]

They suspect him of disappointment in love, an emotion he claims not to haveexperienced. [3] He turns to the girls, pretending to seek love amongthem, but they move angrily away when they see that he is joking. [4]

His friends are amused and Edmondo changes the subject, as they drink. [5]

A postilion's horn is heard and a coach approaches, coming to a halt in frontof the inn. First Lescaut descends, then the elderly Geronte, who gallantlyassists Manon down. The landlord welcomes Lescaut and Geronte and ushers theminto the inn and Lescaut signs to his sister to wait outside. [6] Thecrowd of onlookers disperses but Des Grieux, struck by Manon's beauty,addresses her, asking her name. She tells him that she is Manon Lescaut andthat the next day she will leave, destined for a convent Des Grieux, fascinatedby her beauty, plans to help her escape her fate. Called by her brother, Manongoes inside, finally promising that she will return after dark to meet Des Grieux[7] He sings now in praise of her incomparable beauty and gentleinnocence [8] Edmondo and the other students approach, ironicallycongratulating him, to the annoyance of Des Grieux, who leaves them. Geronte andLescaut come down the staircase, talking together, and the latter reveals histrue opinion of his family's decision to put his sister into a convent. He isinterested to learn of the wealth of the tax-farmer Geronte, and accepts theolder man's invitation to dinner Geronte goes back into the inn, and Lescautjoins the young men gambling. Geronte comes out again and seeing Lescaut thusoccupied tells the landlord to have a coach and horses ready within the hourbehind the inn, for a man and a young girl to go to Paris. He gives the landlord gold. [9] Edmondo, however, has observedGeronte and guessed his intentions. As Des Grieux returns, he tells him what isbeing plotted and agrees to help him outwit both Lescaut, now absorbed in thegame, and Geronte. [10] Manon appears on the staircase, looks round and,as she sees Des Grieux, descends to meet him, although she knows it is unwiseto be with him, even if this should be their final meeting. Des Grieux declareshis love, to whic
Disc: 1
Manon Lescaut
1 Act I - Ave, sera gentile
2 Act I - L'amor? L'amor?!
3 Act I - Tra voi belle, brune e bionde
4 Act I - Ma bravo!
5 Act I - Discendono, vediam!
6 Act I - Cortese damigella, il priego mio accettate
7 Act I - Donna non vidi mai
8 Act I - La tua ventura
9 Act I - La tua Proserpina
10 Act I - Vedete? Io son fedele
11 Act I - Di sedur la sorellina
12 Act II - Dispettosetto questo riccio!
13 Act II - In quelle trine morbide
14 Act II - Poiche tu vuoi saper
15 Act II - Che ceffi son costor?
16 Act II - Paga costor
17 Act II - Vi prego, signorina
18 Act II - L'ora, o Tirsi, e vaga e bella
19 Act II - Galanteria sta bene
20 Act II - Oh, sar o la piu bella
21 Act II - Ah! / Affe, madamigella
22 Act II - Senti... Ah! Manon, mi tradisce
23 Act II - Lescaut?! / Tu qui?!
Disc: 2
Manon Lescaut
1 Intermezzo
2 Act III - Ansia eterna, crudel!
3 Act III - Manon! / Des Grieux!
4 Act III - E Kate rispose al Re
5 Act III - Rosetta! / Eh! Che aria!
6 Act III - Presto! In fila!... Guardate, prezzo son
7 Act IV - Tutta su me ti posa
8 Act IV - Vedi, vedi, son io che piango
9 Act IV - Sei tu che piangi?
10 Act IV - Sola, perduta, abbandonata
11 Act IV - Fra le tue braccia' amore
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