WORKS: Manon Lescaut
PERFORMER: Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti, Dwayne Croft, Giuseppe Taddei, Ramón Vargas, Cecilia Bartoli; Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orchestra/James Levine
CATALOGUE NO: 440 200-2 DDD
Puccini’s first successful opera (1893) is about the struggles of blooming, amorous youth against the predations of withered old age, so a fairly hefty suspension of disbelief is required when listening to this new recording.
Freni recorded the title role ten years ago for DG/Sinopoli and while it may be conceivable that, as Des Grieux puts it, ‘April blossoms in her visage’, her voice is now ravaged by the weathers of late October: her vibrato has loosened into a wobble, the top notes are shrill and in this role she has to put a lot of pressure on her chest voice, which sounds very worn these days. She is not helped by Levine’s self-indulgently wallowing, mawkishly sentimental accompaniment to ‘In quelle trine morbide’ – where she gasps for breath – nor by his vulgar ritenutos in the great love duet.
By the soprano’s side, the great tenor (born in the same year, 1935) sounds positively Peter Pan-ish. He bawls out his two famous arias as if eulogising Princess Di in Hyde Park, but later in the opera the sheer brilliance of his tone, his instinctive stylistic manners and his eloquent use of the text make one wonder why it has taken him so long to take this favourite tenor role into his repertoire.
The supporting cast is strong, with the veteran Taddei (77 this year) still resonant of voice as the ‘lovable dotard’ Geronte, a handsome-voiced young American baritone, Dwayne Croft, as Lescaut, and a ‘guest star’ appearance from Bartoli, as the solo castrato in the Madrigal.
One of the most amusing lines in this opera is Lescaut’s ‘Offender l’arte?’ (What? Insult Art!) when Manon offers the singers money. You can bet your bottom dollar that art was insulted a squillion-fold in the making of this recording. For Pavarotti fans rather than Puccinians. Hugh Canning