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:
Manon was sung in Verona in 1970 not by Magda Olivero alone, but also by Raina Kabaivanska, with the same cast and the same conductor. The recording is very poor and therefore only for the diehards among us, but if you have a chance to listen to it: please do! Between Kabaivanska, who is still extremely underrated, and the young Domingo, a chemistry can be heard that, despite the poor sound quality, comes across really well.
The duet from II Tu, tu, Amore? tu?
As a bonus, you get fragments from 1953 of the live performance in Mexico, with Mario del Monaco and Clara Petrella. Not bad at all! (GAO 162/63)
In 1991, the Maltese Gauci was not exactly an unknown, but her great career only took off with her role as Manon Lescaut at the Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp. The opera was the first in the Puccini cycle, created by the then fledgling Canadian director Robert Carsen. Those who were present will never forget it. Because of the magnificent production, of course, but also because of Gauci’s scorching performance.
In 1992, Gauci recorded the role for Naxos (8660019-20), with Bulgarian tenor Kaludi Kaludov at her side as a very lyrical sounding Des Grieux. His “Donna non vidi mai” is very passionate, but at the same time kept within the boundaries of lyricism. To fall in love with, so beautiful. Alexander Rahbari’s direction is very intense, but also lacks many nuances. A real must because of Gauci and Kaludov.
Highlights are on Spotify:
I can be very brief about the offers on DVD: buy the Menotti production with Renata Scotto and Plácido Domingo from the Metropolitan Opera (1980) and you are set for life. There is no other production that comes even close to it and I do not expect that event to happen any time soon. The compulsiveness with which many contemporary directors want to update everything can only kill the opera. Such was the case with Mariusz Trelinski’s production in Brussels a few years ago, with Eva-Maria Westbroek and Brandon Jovanovich. And this was also the case with the latest production from the MET, directed by Richard Eyre, with Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna in the leading roles.
Scotto sings and acts Manon like no one else has done before, and together with Domingo she provides us with a lovely evening filled with a whole lot of old-fashioned crying. Menotti’s very realistic, true-to-nature and oh-so-exciting production could not be any better.
It is quite unique (DG 0734241).
THE VERY FIRST MANON
Back to the very first Manon. What did she sound like? There is a recording by Cesira Ferrari of “In quelle trine morbide”, made in 1905. It is on a double CD by Standing Room Only (SRO-818-2) with the title “Creators Records”. What you hear is a light, almost soubrette-like voice, but with dark undertones. And with a lot of body. You could say it’s a bit of a big-boned Lolita.