Puccini: Manon Lescaut

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Giacomo Puccini (1858 -1924)

Manon Lescaut

Manon Lescaut was Giacomo Puccini's third opera butproved to be the composer's first successful stage work.

Following on from the earlier Le Villi (1884) and Edgar(1889 revised 1905) the music now displays a far moremature style and the principal characters of Des Grieuxand Manon are given memorable arias and duets toperform, as well as conveying a more dramatic plot.

Like Jules Massenet's earlier version of the story, theItalian composer based his plot on the Abbe Prevost'snovel L'Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de ManonLescaut of 1731. The original librettist was to have beenRuggero Leoncavallo (1858-1919), then better knownfor this activity than that of his later compositions.

Puccini then selected the dramatist Marco Praga who inturn chose Domenico Oliva as his collaborator.

Disagreements with Puccini resulted in these twoindividuals eventually withdrawing from the project.

Then, at the suggestion of his publisher Ricordi, thecomposer turned to Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906) whoin turn chose Luigi Illica (1857-1919) as his workingcolleague, with the composer himself. In the end it wasdecided that as seven people had been involved in thefinal libretto, it was better if no one was mentioned atall.

Unlike Massenet's version, which adopted theobligatory five-act format for French opera, the Italiansetting used just four but also extended the range of thestory. Puccini's more concise version fails to explainhow Manon, having run away with Des Grieux from theboring Geronte in the first act, is then found living withthis older man as the curtain rises for the second. (InPrevost's original there is a scene where the two younglovers live together in a simple house before Manonreturns to Paris). Furthermore there is a lack ofcontinuity between the last two acts where in the thirdthe lovers are reunited on board ship at Le Havre, butfind themselves in the too long final act as the doomedlovers in the deserts of Louisiana. Then there areinconsistencies in the dealings of Manon's brotherLescaut over his relationship with Geronte and later DesGrieux. Nevertheless, whatever problems there are withthe finished libretto, the sweep of the action and musicmakes one forget such matters in the theatre.

The work had its premi?â?¿re at the Teatro Regio inTurin on 1st February 1893. Highlights from the operainclude Des Grieux's arias in Act 1 - \Tra voi belle"(where he teases the young ladies of Amiens) and theardent "Donna non vidi mai" following his first sightingof Manon. The Love Duet in Act 2 ("Tu! Tu amore") isthe emotional centre of the whole opera: this outpouringis possibly the most erotic of all Puccini's duets. This ispreceded by Manon's "In quelle trine morbide", thefirst of the composer's 'heroine' arias. The powerfulIntermezzo opening Act 3 depicts Manon on her way toLe Havre before deportation. Des Grieux's impassioned"Guardate! Pazzo son" is the vocal highlight here. Theevocative Prelude to Act 4 is then followed by anotherduet for the lovers before Manon's desperate "Sola,perduta, abbandonata" just prior to her protracteddeath, this being a forerunner of the dying Mim?â?¼ in Laboh?â?¿me, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Tosca, andLi?â?? in Turandot.

This recording of Manon Lescaut marked a new eraof operatic recording for the American RCAorganisation in that they moved from the United Statesto Italy in the summer of 1954, primarily on the groundsof cost. It enabled them to make use of Italian singers insmaller r?â??les plus those of the chorus and orchestra ofthe Rome Opera. The summer of 1954 also saw a rivalrecording of Manon Lescaut being made in Rome by theDecca Record Company, using soprano Renata Tebaldiand tenor Mario Del Monaco.

The RCA recording sessions were said to beparticularly happy ones and it has been subsequentlycommented upon widely that Jussi Bjorling's vocalacting made this possibly his most convincinginterpretation on record. Although Licia Albanese wasnot thought to be in her freshest voice at the time of therecording she does get fully into the multifacetedcharacter of Manon, complimented by Robert Merrill'sfinely sung Lescaut. Overseeing all is Jonel Perlea'svivid and dramatic handling of the colourful score.

The principal singers selected for this recordingwere well known at the Metropolitan Opera House inNew York at the time. In the r?â??le of Manon Lescaut isthe Italian-born later naturalised-American sopranoLicia Albanese. Born in Bari in 1913 and originallytrained as a pianist, she later studied singing withGiuseppina Baldassare-Tedeschi. Albanese's careerbegan when she suddenly replaced an ailing colleaguein 1934 at the Teatro Lirico, Milan as Cio-Cio-San inMadama Butterfly, with which she also made her'official' debut in Parma the following year. Her firstappearance at the Teatro alla Scala during the 1935-36season was as Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, followed insucceeding seasons as Suzel in L'amico Fritz, Mica?â?½lain Carmen, Anna in Loreley and Mim?â?¼ in La Boh?â?¿mewhich she later recorded (Naxos 8.11072-73). She sangLi?â?? opposite the Turandot of Eva Turner at CoventGarden in 1937 and first appeared at the Metropolitan,New York in 1940. It was in this latter house that shespent most of her subsequent career before retiring in1966. In nearly three hundred performances she sangDesdemona, Violetta, Nedda, Massenet's and Puccini'sManon, Mozart's Countess and Susanna, AdrianaLecouvreur and Tosca. Toscanini also chose her for hisbroadcasts of La Boh?â?¿me and La traviata in 1946. Herother recordings included Mica?â?½la under Reiner (1950),excerpts from Madama Butterfly (1955), with a widerange of operatic arias in French, Italian and Russian,concluding with a selection of Verdi canzoni in 1962.

The Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling (1911-1960) wasborn in Stora Tuna in the district of Dalarna, and as aboy toured and recorded with the family quartet, inaddition to visiting the United States. His adult teacherswere his father David, the baritone John Forsell andScottish tenor Joseph Hislop. He joined the RoyalOpera in Stockholm in 1930 but just two years later firstsang in Germany. An international career began inearnest with appearances in Vienna (1936), New York(1938) and London (1939). The war years were largelyspent in Sweden but he soon returned to New Yorkwhere he sang until 1960. Bjorling was highly regardedin both the French and Italian repertoire, beingrespected for his artistic qualities, even if his acting wasconventional and somewhat stiff. He recordedextensively from the mid-1930s until 1960. He suffered,however, from poor health in later life, caused by heartproblems. His complete operatic recordings include Iltrovatore (Naxos 8.110240-41), Cavalleria rusticana(Naxos 8.110261) and Pagliacci (Naxos 8.110258).

Brooklyn-born Robert Merrill (1917-2004) firststudied with his mother and later Giuseppe de Luca.

Following his stage debut in 1943, he won theMetropolitan Auditions of the Air, which brought abouthis first appearance in that house in December 1945. Itwas here that the larger part of Merrill's career wasspent over a period of thirty years, taking part in nearly750 performances of 21 r?â??les. Generally considered tohave possessed one of the finest lyric baritone voices ofhis time, Merrill excelled in both the French and Italianrepertoire. While his career was predominantly based inthe United States he also sang in Venice (1961) andLondon (1967). He recorded extensively, includingmost of the principal Verdi baritone r?â??les. RobertMerrill can also be heard as Silvio in Pagliacci (Naxos8.110258) and Alfio in Cavalleria rusticana (Naxos8.110261).

The r?â??le of Geronte is sung by the Sicilian-bornbass Franco Calabrese, who was born in Palermo in1923. He sang widely
Disc: 1
Manon Lescaut
1 Act I: Ave, sera gentile (Edmondo, Students, Girls
2 Act I: Tra voi, belle (Des Grieux, Edmondo, Studen
3 Act I: Ma bravo! (Tutti)
4 Act I: Discendono, vediam! (Students, Girls, Edmon
5 Act I: Cortese damigella (Des Grieux, Manon)
6 Act I: Donna non vidi mai (Des Grieux)
7 Act I: La tua ventura ci rassicura (Edmondo, Stude
8 Act I: Un asso – un fante (Townspeople, Students,
9 Act I: La tua Proserpina di resisterti (Edmondo, D
10 Act I: Vedete? Io son fedele alla parola mia (Mano
11 Act I: Non c’e piu vino? (Lescaut, Des Grieux, Man
12 Act I: Di sedur la sorellina e il momento! (Geront
13 Act II: Dispettosetto questo riccio! (Manon, Lesca
14 Act II: Sei splendida e lucente! (Lescaut, Manon)
15 Act II: In quelle trine morbide (Manon)
16 Act II: Poiche tu voi saper (Lescaut, Manon)
17 Act II: Che ceffi son costor? (Lescaut, Manon, Mad
18 Act II: Vi prego, signorina (Dancing Master, Geron
19 Act II: L’ora, o Tirsi (Manon, Gentlemen, Abb
20 Act II: Oh, saro la piu bella! (Manon, Des Grieux)
21 Act II: Ah! – Affe, madimigella (Manon, Geronte, D
22 Act II: Ah, Manon, mi tradisce (Des Grieux, Manon)
23 Act II: Lescaut! – Tu qui? (Des Grieux, Manon, Les
Disc: 2
Bachianas brasileiras No. 5 for Soprano and Cello
1 Act III: Intermezzo
2 Act III: Ansia, eternal, crudel (Des Grieux, Lesca
3 Act III: Manon! – Des Grieux! (Des Grieux, Manon,
4 Act III: E Kate rispose al Re (Lamplighter, Des Gr
5 Act III: All’armi! (Voices, Lescaut, Des Grieux, M
6 Act III: Rosetta! (Sergeant, Townspeople, Lescaut,
7 Act III: Presto! In fila! Marciate!...No! Pazzo so
8 Act IV: Tutta su me ti posa (Des Grieux, Manon)
9 Act IV: Vedi, son io che piango (Des Grieux, Manon
10 Act IV: E nulla! Nulla! (Des Grieux, Manon)
11 Act IV: Sola, perduta, abbandonata (Manon)
12 Act IV: Fra le tue braccia, amore (Manon, Des Grie
13 Louise, Act III: Depuis le jour
14 La Wally, Act I: Ebben? Ne andro lontana
15 Cavalleria Rusticana: Voi lo sapete
16 Adriana Lecouvreur, Act IV: Poveri fiori
17 Mefistofele, Act III: L’altra notte in fondo al ma
18 Bachianas brasileiras No. 5 for Soprano and Cello
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