About this Recording
8.111030-31 - PUCCINI: Manon Lescaut (Albanese, Bjorling, Perlea) (1954)

Giacomo Puccini (1858 -1924)
Manon Lescaut

Manon Lescaut was Giacomo Puccini’s third opera but proved to be the composer’s first successful stage work. Following on from the earlier Le Villi (1884) and Edgar (1889 revised 1905) the music now displays a far more mature style and the principal characters of Des Grieux and Manon are given memorable arias and duets to perform, as well as conveying a more dramatic plot. Like Jules Massenet’s earlier version of the story, the Italian composer based his plot on the Abbé Prévost’s novel L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut of 1731. The original librettist was to have been Ruggero Leoncavallo (1858-1919), then better known for this activity than that of his later compositions. Puccini then selected the dramatist Marco Praga who in turn chose Domenico Oliva as his collaborator. Disagreements with Puccini resulted in these two individuals eventually withdrawing from the project. Then, at the suggestion of his publisher Ricordi, the composer turned to Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906) who in turn chose Luigi Illica (1857-1919) as his working colleague, with the composer himself. In the end it was decided that as seven people had been involved in the final libretto, it was better if no one was mentioned at all.

Unlike Massenet’s version, which adopted the obligatory five-act format for French opera, the Italian setting used just four but also extended the range of the story. Puccini’s more concise version fails to explain how Manon, having run away with Des Grieux from the boring Geronte in the first act, is then found living with this older man as the curtain rises for the second. (In Prévost’s original there is a scene where the two young lovers live together in a simple house before Manon returns to Paris). Furthermore there is a lack of continuity between the last two acts where in the third the lovers are reunited on board ship at Le Havre, but find themselves in the too long final act as the doomed lovers in the deserts of Louisiana. Then there are inconsistencies in the dealings of Manon’s brother Lescaut over his relationship with Geronte and later Des Grieux. Nevertheless, whatever problems there are with the finished libretto, the sweep of the action and music makes one forget such matters in the theatre.

The work had its première at the Teatro Regio in Turin on 1st February 1893. Highlights from the opera include Des Grieux’s arias in Act 1 – “Tra voi belle” (where he teases the young ladies of Amiens) and the ardent “Donna non vidi mai” following his first sighting of Manon. The Love Duet in Act 2 (“Tu! Tu amore”) is the emotional centre of the whole opera: this outpouring is possibly the most erotic of all Puccini’s duets. This is preceded by Manon’s “In quelle trine morbide”, the first of the composer’s ‘heroine’ arias. The powerful Intermezzo opening Act 3 depicts Manon on her way to Le Havre before deportation. Des Grieux’s impassioned “Guardate! Pazzo son” is the vocal highlight here. The evocative Prelude to Act 4 is then followed by another duet for the lovers before Manon’s desperate “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” just prior to her protracted death, this being a forerunner of the dying Mimì in La bohème, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Tosca, and Liù in Turandot.

This recording of Manon Lescaut marked a new era of operatic recording for the American RCA organisation in that they moved from the United States to Italy in the summer of 1954, primarily on the grounds of cost. It enabled them to make use of Italian singers in smaller rôles plus those of the chorus and orchestra of the Rome Opera. The summer of 1954 also saw a rival recording of Manon Lescaut being made in Rome by the Decca Record Company, using soprano Renata Tebaldi and tenor Mario Del Monaco.

The RCA recording sessions were said to be particularly happy ones and it has been subsequently commented upon widely that Jussi Björling’s vocal acting made this possibly his most convincing interpretation on record. Although Licia Albanese was not thought to be in her freshest voice at the time of the recording she does get fully into the multifaceted character of Manon, complimented by Robert Merrill’s finely sung Lescaut. Overseeing all is Jonel Perlea’s vivid and dramatic handling of the colourful score.

The principal singers selected for this recording were well known at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York at the time. In the rôle of Manon Lescaut is the Italian-born later naturalised-American soprano Licia Albanese. Born in Bari in 1913 and originally trained as a pianist, she later studied singing with Giuseppina Baldassare-Tedeschi. Albanese’s career began when she suddenly replaced an ailing colleague in 1934 at the Teatro Lirico, Milan as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, with which she also made her ‘official’ début in Parma the following year. Her first appearance at the Teatro alla Scala during the 1935-36 season was as Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, followed in succeeding seasons as Suzel in L’amico Fritz, Micaëla in Carmen, Anna in Loreley and Mimì in La Bohème which she later recorded (Naxos 8.11072-73). She sang Liù opposite the Turandot of Eva Turner at Covent Garden in 1937 and first appeared at the Metropolitan, New York in 1940. It was in this latter house that she spent most of her subsequent career before retiring in 1966. In nearly three hundred performances she sang Desdemona, Violetta, Nedda, Massenet’s and Puccini’s Manon, Mozart’s Countess and Susanna, Adriana Lecouvreur and Tosca. Toscanini also chose her for his broadcasts of La Bohème and La traviata in 1946. Her other recordings included Micaëla under Reiner (1950), excerpts from Madama Butterfly (1955), with a wide range of operatic arias in French, Italian and Russian, concluding with a selection of Verdi canzoni in 1962.

The Swedish tenor Jussi Björling (1911-1960) was born in Stora Tuna in the district of Dalarna, and as a boy toured and recorded with the family quartet, in addition to visiting the United States. His adult teachers were his father David, the baritone John Forsell and Scottish tenor Joseph Hislop. He joined the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1930 but just two years later first sang in Germany. An international career began in earnest with appearances in Vienna (1936), New York (1938) and London (1939). The war years were largely spent in Sweden but he soon returned to New York where he sang until 1960. Björling was highly regarded in both the French and Italian repertoire, being respected for his artistic qualities, even if his acting was conventional and somewhat stiff. He recorded extensively from the mid-1930s until 1960. He suffered, however, from poor health in later life, caused by heart problems. His complete operatic recordings include Il trovatore (Naxos 8.110240-41), Cavalleria rusticana (Naxos 8.110261) and Pagliacci (Naxos 8.110258).

Brooklyn-born Robert Merrill (1917-2004) first studied with his mother and later Giuseppe de Luca. Following his stage début in 1943, he won the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air, which brought about his first appearance in that house in December 1945. It was here that the larger part of Merrill’s career was spent over a period of thirty years, taking part in nearly 750 performances of 21 rôles. Generally considered to have possessed one of the finest lyric baritone voices of his time, Merrill excelled in both the French and Italian repertoire. While his career was predominantly based in the United States he also sang in Venice (1961) and London (1967). He recorded extensively, including most of the principal Verdi baritone rôles. Robert Merrill can also be heard as Silvio in Pagliacci (Naxos 8.110258) and Alfio in Cavalleria rusticana (Naxos 8.110261).

The rôle of Geronte is sung by the Sicilian-born bass Franco Calabrese, who was born in Palermo in 1923. He sang widely throughout Italy before singing for a number of seasons at La Scala, Milan, during the 1950s and 1960s. His rôles in this house included the Doctor in Pelléas et Mélisande, Geronio in Il Turco in Italia, Count Robinson in Il matrimonio segreto, Geronte in Manon Lescaut, Marchese di Calatrava in La forza del destino, Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte and Antonio in Le nozze di Figaro. He sang (and later recorded) Almaviva in the 1955 production of Le nozze di Figaro at Glyndebourne. He also recorded extensively as a comprimario with both La Scala and Rome forces for a number of labels.

The Romanian conductor Jonel Perlea (1900- 1970) was born in Ograda of a German mother and Romanian father. After studying in Munich and Leipzig he made his début as a conductor of one of his own compositions in Bucharest in 1923. The following year Perlea served as an assistant conductor in Rostock, East Germany. Then followed a period of obligatory military service in his native country before before he joined the staff of the Royal Opera in Bucharest. Four years later he became music director of the opera, with appointments at the Royal Academy of Music and Bucharest Philharmonic Orchestra. During his ten years in Bucharest he conducted the local premières of Der Rosenkavalier, Falstaff and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. In 1944 the Nazis interned him, after an abortive attempt to escape to France. The following years were spent in Italy including engagements at La Scala in Milan conducting Samson et Dalila, Così fan tutte, Orfeo ed Euridice, Boris Godunov, Salome, Werther and Fidelio between 1947 and 1950. He was then engaged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York during the 1950-51 season, conducting Tristan, La Traviata, Rigoletto and Carmen. In 1952 Perlea returned to Romania as a guest. He taught conducting at the Manhattan School of Music between 1955 and 1970, also serving as conductor of the Connecticut Symphony Orchestra in 1955. In 1957 he suffered a heart attack and the following year a stroke which forced him to conduct with his left hand. In addition to recording a considerable amount of purely orchestral music for the Vox label, he also conducted Lucia di Lammermoor for the Remington label (1951), and Rigoletto and Lucrezia Borgia with Monserrat Caballé (1966).

Malcolm Walker

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