Puccini Lescaut PACO201 [RMo]

Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924)
Manon Lescaut – opera in four acts (1893)
Manon Lescaut – Renata Tebaldi (soprano)
Des Grieux – Mario Del Monaco (tenor)
Lescaut – Mario Borriello (baritone)
Geronte – Fernando Corena (bass)
Edmondo – Piero De Palma (tenor)
Una voce sola – Luisa Ribacchi (mezzo-soprano)
L’oste – Antonio Sacchetti (baritone)
Il maestro di ballo – Adelio Zagonora (tenor)
Un sergente degli arcieri – Antonio Sacchetti (baritone)
Lampionaio – Angelo Mercuriali (tenor)
Un comandante di Marina – Dario Caselli (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus Santa Cecilia/Francesco Molinari-Pradelli
rec. 1954, Santa Cecilia, Rome
Reviewed as 24-bit FLAC download
Stereo, XR Remastering
Pristine Audio PACO201 [2 CDs: 107]

This emerged in my survey of this opera as one of the two most recommendable studio, stereo recordings and has a special significance as Decca’s first foray into the stereo medium. It was always aesthetically and sonically superb but having been given Pristine’s XR restoration treatment, its full glory is now apparent.

Let me first quote from that survey:
“It had been a while since I had heard this recording… but I have to say that revisiting it reminded me that it really is a knock-out. Despite a little rawness or shrillness on the odd top note from Tebaldi and the occasional roughness in Del Monaco’s delivery, they are both in pristine voice; time and again I found myself thinking, “That’s what I call operatic singing”. It’s true that Del Monaco is too stentorian in his opening arioso “Tra voi belle, brune e bionde” – hardly as per Puccini’s marking “Con grazia” – and Björling finds much more poetry in des Grieux’s music, but we can revel in the sheer sound Del Monaco makes and he is by no means without feeling. The supporting cast is a very strong bunch of regulars and Molinari-Pradelli strikes me as very much at home on the Puccinian idiom, as good as Serafin, if less inclined to employ rubato and more intent on generating propulsion.

Tebaldi never had Callas’ acuity with the text, but she simply has so much voice; “In quelle trine morbide” is a delicate, then full-voiced, highpoint of her considerable art. Del Monaco’s tenor is decidedly more resonant, effulgent and secure than Di Stefano, who was beginning to over-sing by 1957. Neither Tebaldi nor Callas sounds especially like a headstrong teenager but that is an almost impossible requirement for this role. On balance, for singing per se, I don’t think this vintage recording has ever been surpassed, even if others have found more subtlety and expressivity in the use of the words.”

The revitalised sound positively bursts out of speakers in Pristine’s new issue; the sweep and attack of the opening fanfare are startling and I struck afresh by the sheer verve and vivacity of Puccini’s scoring and Molinari-Pradelli’s conducting. The first voice we hear is Piero De Palma as an ideal Edmondo – charming, elegant and ideally differentiated from Del Monaco’s virile des Grieux – whose opening aria is indeed rather beefy but we can revel in that secure top A which closes his ditty, knowing that this is a voice in prime condition. Del Monaco displays a subtlety and tenderness in his opening entreaties to Manon which are too often denied him by his critics. Coming directly from Jonas Kaufmann’s hoarse onslaught on Calaf in Pappano ’s new recording, I am reminded that this is a what a real Puccini tenor sounds like: bright, pharyngeal and open-toned.

Tebaldi is hardly less impressive in one of her best recordings, free of the slight edge which sometimes crept into her timbre, her top notes free, pure and ringing. “In quelle trine morbide” is simply a flawless piece of vocalisation – without Callas’ or Freni’s pathos and poignancy perhaps, but just a lovely sound. The love duet towards the end of Act II when they are reconciled just before the disaster of Manon’s arrest is a real highlight, Del Monaco’s cries of “Tentatrice!” (Temptress!) suffused with desperate passion.

Mario Boriello possessed a neat, attractive baritone of no especial volume or character with rather weak low notes, but he makes a characterful Lescaut, well-matched by Corena’s fruity, bumptious Geront.

A word, too, for the enthusiasm of the chorus and how beautifully they are balanced against the orchestra and soloists in the sound-picture. The orchestra is everything one could wish for under Molinari-Pradelli’s alternately flexible, affectionate and energised direction.; the Intermezzo is beautifully played.

After its release nearly seventy years ago as I write, this remains one of the top recommendations among recordings if this opera – and the sound is miraculous, not just for its vintage but also objectively speaking, especially now that it has been so expertly cleaned up.

Ralph Moore

Availability: Pristine Classical