Why do we love Manon so very much? She is not really virtuous. She leaves the love of her life for an old rich man, but as soon as she gets bored, she allows her young lover to come back to her. She is willing to run away with him, but not without her jewels. A child can see that it cannot end well.
Once caught, Manon is taken prisoner and exiled to America, where she dies in the arms of her lover. The poor soul refused to leave her. Talk about real love!
It is thanks to Puccini, who captured her character in the most beautiful notes, that she never becomes one-dimensional and you must be made of stone if you do not love her.
The role of Manon was created in 1893 at the Teatro Reggio in Turin by Cesira Ferrari, an Italian soprano who made her debut as Micaëla in Carmen and three years later sang the first Mimì in La bohème. Perhaps here is an indication of the type of voice that Puccini had in mind for his Manon?
How many good Manons are there nowadays? Not many, I think. The role makes very high demands on the performer. It requires a voice that can combine the childishly naive sex appeal of the silly girl in the first three acts with the real tragédienne in act four.
But Des Grieux, too, is a role that is not easy to fill. The man himself may be a sissy, but Puccini has written such violent notes for him, challenging him with such utterly emotional outbursts, that the singer must be a would-be Calaf to survive the opera with his voice intact.
There is no doubt about it: Magda Olivero was the very best Manon Lescaut of the second half of the twentieth century. In 1970, when she was 60 (!) years old, she sang the role in Verona with the not yet 30-year-old Domingo at her side. Quite bizarre when you consider that Olivero made her professional debut eight years before Domingo was born. And yet her portrayal of the young heroine was utterly convincing. Most of her colleagues could not (and cannot) match her performance!
The role of Des Grieux was a role that could have been written for Domingo. As Renato, he was able to combine all his charm, his sehnsucht and his boyishness (something he has managed to retain to an advanced age) with a cannon-like voice. My copy was released on Foyer (2-CF 2033), but nowadays there are more releases in better sound quality and the recording can also be found on You Tube.
Two years later, Olivero sang the role in Caracas. The performance of 2 June 1972 was recorded by Legato Classics (LCD-113-2). The sound quality is reasonably good, but what makes the recording really desirable is Des Grieux by the then 60-year-old Richard Tucker. So yearning, so in love, so beautiful…. Sigh. Yes, folks: once upon a time, opera was made by voices, not by beautiful bodies!
Duet from the fourth act: