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David Shengold
Opera News, November 2009

Massenet’s charmer, staged sumptuously by Gilbert Deflo at Paris’s Bastille in 1997, was filmed in 2001 to capture the Manon of diva du jour Renée Fleming. Arthaus Musik now offers this performance previously available on TDK. Conductor Jesús López-Cobos leads the proceedings with detailed skill and charm; traditional production values predominate.

William Orlandi’s rich eighteenth-century costumes add much color; his sets—impressionistic rather than literally depictive—are skimpier, but make for quick flow between scenes. The draperies and flattering gowns of Act II seem far too lavish to evoke a young couple “starving for love.” Handsome etchings, added post-production, depict iconic moments in Prévost’s novel.

Fleming’s Manon—along with the DVD’s Lescaut, Guillot and Brétigny—originated this staging in 1997. It plays to many of her strengths. Richly begowned, she looks lovely, if not adolescent. (Ethnologists might note that this French girl smiles way too much, in the “American abroad” manner.) Overall she makes the consistently beautiful, creamy sound that has won her an international following: it suits some parts of this multifarious role better than others. (In the Cours-la-Reine scene she seems to channel a particularly arch Hanna Glawari.) Fleming offers thoroughly studied, if sometimes fussily phrased, French, with scintillating cadenzas and excellent high notes throughout; occasionally she finds “ways through” coloratura flights that smaller-voiced sopranos approach more dead-on. She often wins warm applause from the Parisian audience.

Marcelo Álvarez, unfortunately bewigged, looks even less the teenager and shows limited facial mobility. His bright “full lyric” sound suits des Grieux’s music in weight and color; he shows laudable dynamic range but isn’t really comfortable in the voix mixte shadings that tenors from Clément to Gedda have brought to this role. Neither star here is the kind of artist that disappears into a role; both give accomplished, likable accounts of their demanding parts. Though the Saint-Sulpice duet heats things up, the two singers ultimately seem like congenial international operatic colleagues rather than Prévost’s fated, impassioned amoureux.

Past the American and Argentine central pair, Massenet’s expertly crafted text-setting benefits tremendously from all-Gallic casting—a major reason for considering this version. The smoothly phrased, handsome Lescaut of Jean-Luc Chaignaud outsings Franck Ferrari’s energetic Brétigny. Alain Vernhes provides a dignified, stylish Comte des Grieux. Guillot is incisive veteran character tenor Michel Sénéchal. For once the trio of actresses (Jaël Azzaretti, Isabelle Cals and Delphine Haidan) is cast from strength vocally and linguistically as well as visually. David Levi’s chorus is distinguished.

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