Puccini Manon Lescaut Netrebko Armiliato DG 4796828

Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924)
Manon Lescaut (1893)
Anna Netrebko (soprano) – Manon Lescaut; Yusif Eyvazov (tenor) – Chevalier des Grieux; Armando Piña (baritone) – Lescaut; Carlos Chausson (bass) – Geronte di Ravoir; Erik Astine (bass) – Sergeant of the Royal Archers; Benjamin Bernheim (tenor) – Edmondo; Patrick Vogel – The Dancing Master; Simon Shibambu (bass) – The Ship’s Captain; Szilvia Vörös (mezzo) – A Singer
Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Vienna State Opera/Marco Armiliato
rec. live composite, August 2016, Großes Festspielhaus Salzburg
Deutsche Grammophon 4796828 [128]

This recording, assembled from live concert performances, took place at the Salzburg Summer Festival in 2016 and was released in 2017 both on compact disc, as well as download. At present, it appears as if Universal Classics is insisting that virtually all of its opera back catalogue be available only as downloads and so that is the format used for this review. Since this recoding has been made from a number of live performances, the listener will have to put up with the dull boxy sound of the Großes Festspielhaus, as well as an enthusiastic audience whose presence is very audible, both at the end of the acts as well as after key arias. I imagine it must have been one of the hottest tickets for that year’s festival, but Manon Lescaut has been lucky on record so this set as a listening-only experience faces some formidable competition from the past – and with one notable exception, it fails on every level.

I have admired Marco Armiliato’s conducting tremendously elsewhere, not least on the DVD from the Met of La rondine with Alagna and Gheorghiu (see review) where I thought he was even better than Pappano in his studio recording. He clearly loves Manon Lescaut – at times almost to death – the first Act and much of the second is too loving and slow, whilst the Intermezzo almost grinds to a halt. Curiously, he puts pedal to metal for the end of the second act and while the third and fourth are far better paced, overall, he cannot be counted as one of the set’s strengths. Nor can Yusif Eyvazov’s des Grieux be either – whether his presence here is on account of his also being Mr Netrebko is not for me to say, but it takes an awful long time for his voice to warm up. His “Tra voi belle” is slow, effortful and graceless – comparison with any tenor who has essayed the role in the past on record does not do him any favours whatsoever; his “Donna non vidi mai” is marginally better, but still slow and cautious. To be fair, he has improved enough by the last two acts for me to start appreciating his presence, but by then it’s too little too late. Worse still is Amando Piña’s Lescaut – his first entrance is awful, the tone woolly and unfocused, and this sets the tone for the rest of his performance; he just sounds like Leo Nucci on a bad night. The remainder of the cast are decent, no more.

So that just leaves Anna Netrebko’s Manon and here, happily, I can be much more positive. I think her voice and temperament is pretty much ideal for the part and for much of Act I, I enjoyed the full rich tone with which she seemingly uses effortlessly. In the following act there are some top notes which have derailed many prima donnas in the past, but they are taken effortlessly by Netrebko and are all the more remarkable for this being live. Indeed, as the performance progressed, I began to wonder if this was perhaps the most beautiful sung Manon I have ever heard, matching the achievement of Kiri Te Kanawa on her long-forgotten recording on Decca with Chailly and Carreras. However, there one has to contend with the eternal problem with Te Kanawa, in that as beautiful as her singing undoubtedly is, the dramatic conviction she brings to the part is exactly the polar opposite. As a good friend of mine once roguishly commented, at her most formidably dramatic best here, Kiri’s attempt at capturing Manon’s desperation and despair often recalls the agony of when you cannot remember where you left your vehicle in a multi-storey carpark after an afternoon’s shopping spree.  It is very different with Netrebko – she perfectly captures Manon’s sadness and boredom in Act II, as well as the increasing despair during the ensuing acts. Maybe it is too early to say if hers is a great performance, but I was formidably impressed – which is all the more reason to regret why she was not captured in a performance with a supporting cast and conductor at a level to have done her justice.

In conclusion, Netrebko fans will undoubtedly be thrilled with this and may well be even more thrilled than I by DG’s presentation of an outdated English translation, complete with black and white photos of the performance and an essay that tells you more about Ms Netrebko than Puccini. That said, while Puccini aficionados may still want to hear this set for the soprano’s contribution alone, the remainder of this recording does not challenge those from the past, of which I count the Pavarotti/Freni/Levine on Decca, as well as the Callas/di Stefano/Serafin on EMI/Warner (review) as my own favourites.

Lee Denham

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