|About this Recording
8.110123-24 - PUCCINI: Manon Lescaut (Kirsten, Björling) (1949)
Giacomo Puccini (1858 - 1924)
A dramma lirico in four acts, to a libretto by Domenico Oliva, Luigi Illica and others, after the novel L'histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the Abbe Prevost
Puccini looks to me more like the heir of Verdi than any of his rivals
G. B. Shaw, writing after the London premiere of Manon Lescaut
In the light of Shaw's comment, quoted above, it is worth remembering that Manon Lescaut - Puccini's first successful opera - and Falstaff - Verdi's triumphant last - were premiered within nine days of each other in the early winter of 1893. For their musical contemporaries, (some of the younger ones surely deeply jealous of Puccini), it was a poignant moment as they sensed the mantle pass from the older to the younger man; the welfare of Italian opera was in new, safe hands and remained so until Puccini's death 31 years later.
Not, however, that the completion of Manon Lescaut had been straightforward. Before the first night it caused its composer more trouble than any of his later operas, with constant re-writing and editing, seemingly endless amendments and additions to the libretto by numerous colleagues (even by the composer himself); and radical changes to the first act after the first night. Thus it was a rather different opera that was 're-premiered' at La Scala, Milan a year after the 'original' first performance in Turin. Perhaps surprisingly to us, a century later, Manon Lescaut was greeted with far greater initial enthusiasm than some of Puccini's later works; La Boheme and Madama Butterfly both suffered from bad first nights, though both recovered and overtook their predecessor in popularity.
Manon Lescaut was soon seen outside Italy; at Covent Garden and in Philadelphia in 1894, but only in 1907 did it reach the Metropolitan, New York, where it boasted a cast including Enrico Caruso and Lina Cavalieri. Later interpreters were Martinelli, Gigli, Lucrezia Bori and Claudia Muzio but after 1929 there was a gap of twenty years before it was staged there once more. When it was, the Met again cast from strength and in the new production which opened on 23rd November 1949, Dorothy Kirsten and Jussi Bjorling took the leading roles. This recording, from the third performance of that series, shows why they were both so greatly admired by Met audiences. Jussi Bjorling excelled in this opera. Des Grieux is suave, enamoured and grief-stricken by turns, and the lustrous tenor catches each nuance of the character. In the opening few minutes he progresses from charming flirt ("Tra vai belle") to smitten beau ("Oh, come siete bella!") as he deplores the plans for Manon's installation in a convent. After her departure, the full-throated glory of "Donna non vidi mai” rightly earns the audience's applause; but it is not just full-throated. It is tender, wonder-full, passionate and never strained. So it is through every mood - bitterness in the second act, desperation in the third and concern for the dying Manon in the last. Bjorling's is a beautifully considered and delivered interpretation.
Dorothy Kirsten was blessed with a light pure lyric soprano, particularly well suited to Manon's naivete in the first act. Vocally, the horrors of her deportation in Act 3 and desolation in Act 4 do not come so naturally to Kirsten, and yet" Sola, perduta, abbandonata…" with its final "no! non voglio morir" and last duet with des Grieux are most moving. It would be easy to overplay this tragedy and yet Kirsten avoids that danger, making the tragedy all the more real.
Puccini wrote about his approach to the composition of Manon Lescaut "...I shall feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion"; he would surely have been well satisfied with this performance.
Manon Lescaut was first performed on 1st February 1893 at the Teatro Regio, Turin; the revised version was performed on 7th February 1894 at La Scala, Milan.
CD I: Act I
 The opera is set in the second half of the eighteenth century. The opening scene reveals a large square in Amiens, near the Paris Gate. To the right there is an avenue and to the left an inn, with a porch and tables outside. An outside staircase leads to the first floor of the inn. Students, townsfolk, girls and soldiers stroll in the square and in the avenue, while other groups stand chatting or sitting at the tables drinking and gambling. It is evening and Edmondo and his friends welcome Des Grieux, a fellow-student, as they watch the girls pass.  They suspect him of disappointment in love, an emotion he claims not to have experienced.  He turns to the girls, pretending to seek love among them, but they move angrily away when they see that he is joking.  His friends are amused and Edmondo changes the subject, as they drink.  A postilion's horn is heard and a coach approaches, coming to a halt in front of the inn. First Lescaut descends, then the elderly Geronte, who gallantly assists Manon down. The landlord welcomes Lescaut and Geronte and ushers them into the inn and Lescaut signs to his sister to wait outside.  The crowd of onlookers disperses but Des Grieux, struck by Manon's beauty, addresses her, asking her name. She tells him that she is Manon Lescaut and that the next day she will leave, destined for a convent Des Grieux, fascinated by her beauty, plans to help her escape her fate. Called by her brother, Manon goes inside, finally promising that she will return after dark to meet Des Grieux  He sings now in praise of her incomparable beauty and gentle innocence  Edmondo and the other students approach, ironically congratulating him, to the annoyance of Des Grieux, who leaves them. Geronte and Lescaut come down the staircase, talking together, and the latter reveals his true opinion of his family's decision to put his sister into a convent. He is interested to learn of the wealth of the tax-farmer Geronte, and accepts the older man's invitation to dinner Geronte goes back into the inn, and Lescaut joins the young men gambling. Geronte comes out again and seeing Lescaut thus occupied tells the landlord to have a coach and horses ready within the hour behind the inn, for a man and a young girl to go to Paris. He gives the landlord gold.  Edmondo, however, has observed Geronte and guessed his intentions. As Des Grieux returns, he tells him what is being plotted and agrees to help him outwit both Lescaut, now absorbed in the game, and Geronte.  Manon appears on the staircase, looks round and, as she sees Des Grieux, descends to meet him, although she knows it is unwise to be with him, even if this should be their final meeting. Des Grieux declares his love, to which she clearly responds. While Lescaut is encouraged to drink more, Des Grieux tells Manon of Geronte's plan to abduct her and take her to Paris. He offers himself in the old man's place. Edmondo comes to tell them that the coach is ready, and Des Grieux urges Manon to escape with him, leaving Edmondo to tell Geronte what has happened.  Geronte comes out of the inn and is pleased to see Lescaut involved in gambling, since this will give him a chance to seduce the man's sister. As he orders supper, Edmondo points to the departing coach, carrying Manon and Des Grieux away. Lescaut dissuades the Geronte from immediate pursuit, suggesting that Des Grieux will soon be out of money and that then there will be time for Geronte to achieve his purpose.
 By the opening of the second act matters have resolved themselves, and Manon has abandoned Des Grieux and given way to Geronte. The scene is set in the elegant salon of Geronte's house in Paris. Manon now enjoys every luxury. She is seated, attended by her hairdresser and his assistants, joined by her brother.  She complains to him about her sterile life, although Lescaut reminds her of how he has saved her from poverty with Des Grieux, whom she had deserted without even a farewell kiss, although she misses him and would gladly hear news of him.  Des Grieux, her brother tells her, has made enough money now, out of gambling, to find his way to Manon's heart.  Singers enter, ordered by Geronte, performing for her a madrigal that Geronte has written.  Manon hands a purse to her brother, to pay the musicians off, as several friends of Geronte come in, followed by four musicians and Geronte, with the dancing-master who will give Manon a lesson in the Minuet. Lescaut slips out to find Des Grieux, as more guests arrive, paying their respects to Manon, for whom some bring flowers and various trinkets.  The lesson proceeds, to the flattering applause of the onlookers, who watch as Manon has her dancing-lesson.  She dances with Geronte, singing a pastoral idyll of love.  The lesson over, it is time to go out. The guests leave and Geronte goes to order a sedan-chair.  Manon takes up a hand-mirror and admires herself. Hearing someone approach, she asks if the chair is ready, but it is Des Grieux who enters. She asks if he can still love her, but he remains bitter at her faithlessness, while she begs his forgiveness, as their old love is revived and she falls into his arms.  At this point Geronte returns and addresses the couple ironically, reproaching Manon for her ingratitude. She hands him her mirror and tells him to look at himself. He is deeply offended and goes out, threatening that they will meet again soon.  Des Grieux urges Manon to escape with him at once, but she hesitates, reluctant to leave the luxury in which she has lived with Geronte, while he laments his own degradation as a gambler. She again seeks forgiveness and swears to be true to her young lover.  Lescaut hurries in breathlessly and tells them that Geronte has denounced Manon and that constables are on the way to seize her. There is no time to be lost, but Manon is anxious to take her jewels with her, while Des Grieux urges haste. Lescaut in desperation pushes the pair into the alcove at the corner of the room, but Manon runs out again, as the constables enter, followed by Geronte with soldiers. He laughs at her, as she drops some of her jewels, and Lescaut prudently takes the sword of Des Grieux, preventing him from arrest and holding him back, as the constables drag Manon away.
CD 2: Intermezzo
 An Intermezzo covers the journey of the imprisoned Manon to Le Havre, where she is to be transported, condemned, the music reflecting the despair of Des Grieux, who has done all he can to secure her release.
 The third act opens in a square near the harbour in Le Havre. Dawn is breaking and Des Grieux and Lescaut are watching outside the barrack prison, the latter claiming that he has bribed the sentry and that Manon will soon be free. A sergeant leads a group of soldiers out, as the guard changes, and Lescaut points out the man he has bribed He signals to the man, who goes away, and then taps on the iron bars of the ground-floor window, as Des Grieux watches anxiously.  Manon appears and Des Grieux seizes her hand, while Lescaut leaves the couple together.  A lamplighter passes by, singing as he extinguishes the lamps Now that morning approaches Des Grieux tells Manon how her escape has been planned and what she must do A shot is heard in the distance and Des Grieux, startled, runs to the narrow street by the prison. Voices are heard raising the alarm, and Lescaut rushes in, exhorting Des Grieux to save himself and trying to restrain him, while Manon too, coming to the window, tells him to make his escape. People come running from all sides, asking each other what has happened. There is a roll of drums and the door of the barracks opens. A sergeant and soldiers come out, and with them a group of chained women. They stop in front of the gate. The sergeant orders the crowd back and from the ship in the harbour come the captain and a group of marines.  The sergeant now calls the roll of prisoners, and as each one is called, she moves to join the marines, while the captain marks the name off on his list. Lescaut endeavours to arouse the sympathy of the watching townspeople for Manon, seduced and betrayed by an old man, who took her from her young lover. Des Grieux manages to stand near her and their hands meet. She bids him farewell, to his despair.  The sergeant orders the women and their guards away and pulls Manon away from Des Grieux, who threatens him, with the approval of the onlookers. Breaking down in tears, he begs the captain, who has intervened, to allow him to sail with his beloved Manon, even as a cabin boy. The prisoners have now been taken onto the ship and the captain, moved by the pleas of Des Grieux, grants his request. Des Grieux, in joy, kisses his hand, while Manon turns and, guessing what has happened, shows her own delight. She opens her arms to him, as Des Grieux runs to her. Lescaut shakes his head and walks away.
 The final act is set in America. The scene is an endless plain on the borders of New Orleans. The country is bare and undulating, the horizon far distant. Clouds cover the sky, as evening falls. Manon and Des Grieux come slowly forward. They are poorly dressed and seem tired out. Manon is pale and exhausted and leans on Des Grieux who wearily supports her. He tells her to lean all her weight on him, as the road comes to an end, but she can go no further.  She faints and Des Grieux tries desperately to revive her.  Coming to, she tells him to leave her and seek help. Laying her on rising ground, but still in doubt and despair, he resolves to do what he can to bring help, even in this wilderness.  Alone, Manon realises death is near.  Des Grieux returns and she falls into his arms, assuring him again and again of her love. Her faults will be forgotten but her love will never die, she tells him, her last words, leaving Des Grieux to fall grief-stricken on her body.
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