Notes and Editorial Reviews
Within Manon honesty contradicts wickedness. It is her honesty that makes her not only wicked despite herself, but truly good despite herself, too. Massenet succeeds perfectly in portraying this contradiction. In the opera Manon is a girl who not only passionately embraces all that life has to offer, but also every aspect of her character, the good and the bad. This combines into a will to live that is self-destructive and ultimately fatal.
Mirella Freni gives the perfect impersonation of this tragic character. In Addio, o nostro picciol desco in act II Manon has decided to leave her lover and the poor life that came with him for the riches of Brétigny. She sings her goodbye to happier days with Des Grieux and the
listener hears her becoming overwhelmed by her self-imposed fate. She is almost driven to desperation by her inner conflict. This desperation comes back at the end of the act after Des Grieux has been abducted by his father’s men. At that point Manon lets out a terrible cry of regret and ends in uncontrolled sobbing.
In the third act, in the duet at the seminary of St. Sulpice Tu!..Voi!.. La tua non è la mano, Freni sings the beguiling Manon in a wildly erotic though simultaneously desperate manner, bordering on the psychopathic. She is answered by an equally aroused Pavarotti as Des Grieux. Hearing this scene and the audience reaction to it will no doubt give goose bumps to even the most seasoned listener.
Des Grieux is a less interesting character, as he is a stock-in-trade; the somewhat gullible but good-hearted tenor who becomes the victim of the femme fatale. Nevertheless the character is very satisfying and the part has some very rewarding numbers both for the singer and the audience. As far as range and technique is concerned the young Pavarotti proves himself a perfect singer for this role. He catches all the high notes - possibly even more than required - seemingly without effort.
In addition and surprisingly he is also not far from what a French interpretation should sound like. He turns out not to be the ferocious verismo blaster, but a passionate and graceful singer. He displays a lot of fine ‘French’ grace in a piece such as his second act aria Chiudo gli occhi e nel pensier. His phrasing and tenderness are in character with Massenet’s writing. Even though passion is never far off it remains controlled by Massenet’s subtle vocal lines which often make an unexpected turn towards the tender instead of the expected spectacular. There is another good example of Pavarotti following the composer’s cue of controlled passion. It can be found in the third act where Pavarotti gives a heart-breaking rendition of Ah! dispar vision. Indeed, Italy seems to be closer than France, but that has more to do with the Italian language in which this performance is sung than with style. After all, French opera and especially Massenet can and should be sung passionately too. This recording proves that French opera can be at least as engaging as its late Nineteenth Century Italian counterpart.
In this 1969 recording Mirella Freni and Pavarotti are in their youthful prime and on top of the world. Their singing is passionate and they take all the difficulties Massenet created for these two roles with great ease and with power to spare. Take for instance the incredibly long, sustained note in unison, at the end of Manon and Des Grieux's passionate duet A parigi, andrem in the first act. What power, what stamina and what excellent voices! It will leave the listener gulping for air. Their whole performance is filled with thrilling moments like these: The aforementioned X-rated church scene in act three is wild and the death scene touchingly melodramatic. These factors make it a must-have recording for lovers of great, passionate singing and of course for aficionados of Freni and Pavarotti.
The other singers are more than adequate. Antonio Zerbini has a rounded, sonorous bass, making the father appropriately severe, while Rolando Panerai is a nasty, menacing Lescaut. The small baritone role of De Brétigny is filled by the bass Giuseppi Morresi. Peter Maag's conducting of the La Scala forces is very dramatic and powerful. The fact that it is a live recording no doubt contributes to the splendidly dramatic performance. There is frequent and enthusiastic audience engagement. Depending on ones preference this can either be annoying or make for a great experience as it can enhance the illusion of being part of the performance.
As for authenticity - which I very much advocate - this recording cannot be relied on. Firstly, it is in Italian, not the original French. This can at times sound awkward - as translated opera's tend to do - and it partly deprives the music of its typical, French charm.
Secondly, the opera has been brutally cut. The cuts in the first act are still rather conventional, even by today’s standards; it is generally acknowledged that the first act is too long for its own dramatic good. However, ending the act with the duet between Manon and Des Grieux instead of the following public scene – where Lescaut is publicly humiliated when he finds out his sister has eloped - was certainly done to capitalize on the stunning effect of the duet, not to enhance dramatic coherence. Even worse is the omission of the first half of the third act, the scene at the Cours-la-Reine. One can understand, albeit grudgingly, that they left out the ballet, as the extra costs can be prohibitive. However, the rest of the scene is of significant dramatic importance as it illuminates Manon’s affair with Brétigny and her decision to leave him for Des Grieux. In fairness I should stress that Opera d’Oro has been kind enough to warn the potential buyer of this substantial omission on the back of the CD’s cover.
-- Joost Overdijkink, MusicWeb International Read less
Works on This Recording
Manon by Jules Massenet
Mirella Freni (Soprano),
Rolando Panerai (Baritone),
Luciano Pavarotti (Tenor),
Antonio Zerbini (Bass),
Franco Ricciardi (Tenor),
Giuseppe Morresi (Bass Baritone),
Ida Farina (Soprano)
Milan Teatro alla Scala Orchestra,
Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus
Written: 1883-1884; France
Date of Recording: 06/03/1969
Venue: Live La Scala Theater, Milan, Italy
Length: 131 Minutes 4 Secs.
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