Puccini Manon Lescaut Tebaldi Pristine PACO201

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Manon Lescaut (1892)
Manon Lescaut – Renata Tebaldi (soprano)
Des Grieux – Mario Del Monaco (tenor)
Lescaut – Mario Boriello (baritone)
Geronte – Fernando Corena (bass)
Edmondo – Piero de Palma (tenor)
Santa Cecilia Academy Chorus & Orchestra/Francesco Molinari-Pradelli
rec. 1954, Rome 
Full score and Piano/Vocal scores available as downloads
Pristine Audio PACO201 [2 CDs: 107]

This recording of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut is considered in some quarters to be a classic. It has been issued and reissued many times, both singly and as part of large Puccini-focused boxed sets. Recorded in stereo but initially issued in mono, this was one of three operas set down by Tebaldi in the summer of 1954, the other two being Otello and La traviata. This recording, made almost a decade before the soprano’s technical overhaul, contains all her middle period strengths and weaknesses. There is some stunningly beautiful soft singing and great helpings of the plush, velvety tone that marked Tebaldi as a standout in the 20th century soprano sweepstakes. As expected, there are also the occasional harsh sounds in the upper register; these moments are infrequent. 

It is interesting to compare Tebaldi’s aristocratic, somewhat detached version of Manon with that of a stage animal like Magda Olivero, who possessed far keener dramatic instincts than her better-known counterpart. For example, in an affecting live performance of “Sola, perduta, abbandonata,” Olivero throws in some stagey sobs and happily obeys Puccini’s command of ‘portando la voce,’ doing so both where marked and in numerous other locations. She also inflects every note. Hear her slightly amended rhythm at “Terra di pace mi sembrava questa” when she changes the vocal line to match the flute, lovingly shaping the text via color and subtle rubato. In comparison, the studio-bound Tebaldi blandly negotiates that same scale with ease while sounding as if she is singing the telephone book. She is not helped by the frustrating conducting of Molinari-Pradelli. The conductor supplies some moments of great finesse (his sensitive shaping of the “Tu, tu, amore? Tu” duet, for example, indicates that he is more than a routineer), but at other times sprints through the score in a careless bid for excitement.

For his part, the leather lunged Del Monaco seems determined to hammer home every note. Although his deafening tenor was put to good use elsewhere (Turiddu, Otello, Dick Johnson, to name a few of his choice roles), des Grieux was not an ideal vehicle for Del Monaco’s talents. One feels that this Manon sought the peace of death to escape des Grieux’s constant hectoring. Boriello is competent yet dull in the thankless role of Lescaut. It says a great deal that the highlights of this recording are the performances of Corena and de Palma, both of whom sharply characterize their roles. Corena’s Geronte in particular is a nasty customer.

The sound quality of Pristine’s new issue is truly pristine, but even the best sonic restoration can’t save what is at heart an indifferent performance. Historical recording fanciers would be better served by listening to the Zamboni/Merli premiere recording, conducted by Molajoli. If Tebaldi is the focus, there are several live versions that feature better tenor pairings – Di Stefano in Act 4 and a complete Met performance with Richard Tucker come to mind – and more engaged vocal acting from Tebaldi. 

Richard Masters

Previous review: Ralph Moore

Availability: Pristine Classical