PERFORMER: Julia Varady, Mary Ann McCormick, Carl Tanner, Dalibor Jenis, Carlo Cigni; Radio France Chorus & Maîtrise, French National Orchestra/Yoel Levi
CATALOGUE NO: V 4957
Manon Lescaut (1893) is the earliest of Puccini’s operas to remain in the repertoire. Before that he composed Le villi (1884) and Edgar (1889), both to libretti by Ferdinando Fontana.
Neither possessed a subject that suited him. Set in the Black Forest, Le villi tells a Giselle-like tale of a young man whose desertion of his village maiden-love for a siren in Mainz leads to her death and incorporation into the Willis – a group of disembodied spirits who wreak revenge on faithless lovers by dancing them to death. This is exactly what happens to the hapless Roberto – though in the opera’s awkward dramatic construction we see only his initial happiness and regretful if giddy end.
Edgar, set in medieval Flanders, has another siren figure – Tigrana (a mezzo role, obviously) who lures the hero away from his village maiden-love Fidelia, and eventually stabs her to death in church at the end of what would have been Edgar’s funeral, had he really been dead. (Don’t ask.)
Suffice it to say that Puccini never worked with Fontana again, and from then on his librettists would do his bidding, producing exactly what he needed to create theatrical masterpieces. Neither of these operas is anything of the sort, but both contain attractive and worthwhile music, with Edgar showing an advance over its predecessor.
Both receive acceptable performances in these concerts recorded by Radio France. There are some moments of dodgy ensemble in Le villi that should have been redone, but conductor Marco Guidarini delivers the score with spirit, and the principals – if a touch small-scale – do their work with a sense of style.
Under the fluent baton of Yoel Levi, Edgar goes better, while in the soprano role of Fidelia Julia Varady is consistently fine, with an excellent technique and musical authority. Mary Ann McCormick clearly relishes the challenge of the venal slut Tigrana.
Sound in both cases is restricted, with a dull surface and a lack of perspective. Otherwise, these are presentable versions of works rarely encountered in the theatre. George Hall