When Puccini set out to write his “Manon Lescaut,” the composer drew attention to his “feeling it like an Italian, with a desperate passion.” Though the comment came in the context of his comparing it with Massenet’s own interpretation of the work, that idea of desperation has certainly played into numerous readings of the work. A look at the catalogue of recordings throughout history certainly points to some gems that bring out the intense yearning and desire that works its way throughout the opera.
Deutsche Grammophon’s latest recording, featuring superstar Anna Netrebko, tenor Yusif Eyvazov and the Munchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Marco Armiliato, certainly moves from tender yearning to full-blow “desperate passion.”
Netrebko Gives Nuanced Rendition
Netrebko is undeniably the big selling point of this recording, as the Russian soprano has been practically owning the role since 2014 when she sang it under Riccardo Muti’s baton alongside Eyvazov. Her recent run at the Metropolitan Opera is reportedly her farewell to the role, coinciding quite splendidly with the release of this album.
This recording is, of course, a compilation of a series of live concert performances in Salzburg this past summer and it finds Netrebko in truly fine and insightful form. The lush soprano is at its most flexible with Netrebko’s finding truly mesmerizing shady throughout the work. Her singing in the glorious “In quelle trine morbide” features Netrebko’s finest legato phrasing, the voice elastic and the warm colors blooming into pained mourning as she contemplates the loss of her true love. On the final phrase, Netrebko’s voice fades into a silky quality expressing the loss of her fantastical love; the vocalization of innocence lost. She quickly moves into a more coquettish quality during the famed minuet, her voice more pointed and the consonants stinging as Manon toys with her public.
One of the most unique factors in Netrebko’s singing is her vibrato which can go from a more pointed oscillation to a far wider and more unwieldy one. She uses it to fine effect here, Manon’s more passionate outbursts showcasing the latter while her more restrained moments enhanced by the more direct oscillation.
Eyvazov Delivers Passionate Des Grieux
While the opera is given the title of the heroine of the piece, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the success of this work relies on a solid Manon and an equal potent Des Grieux. As is the case with the Abbe Prevost novel, the audience sees and feels the story through the male protagonist. While Manon is fickle, unstable and at times frustrating, Des Grieux stands by her side, his undying dedication his fatal weakness.
Eyvazov’s reading of the character lines up quite well with the novel’s first representation of the character – broken. His opening aria, “Tra voi, belle,” often performed with a flirtatious ping is given here with more melancholy, Des Grieux’s previous comment that “Love? Of that Tragedy, or rather comedy I know nothing,” added poignancy. In what is to be a motif of Eyvazov’s overall performance, the high notes (and longer notes in general) are expanded, emphasizing Des Grieux’s intense longing. We hear this again, with brutally powerful intensity, during the Act 3 aria “Non, pazzo son! Guardate…” in which Des Grieux pleads with guards to allow him to be exiled with his beloved. On three different occasions, Eyvazov pushes the highest to his vocal limits, the suspense truly palpable. One wonders whether he would have been allowed the same freedom in a recording and if these moments of dramatic brilliance showcase the beauty of capturing the live performance.
Another great aspect of his performance throughout is the fantastic diction, every word clear to the listener.
A Fully Fleshed Love Affair
Manon and Des Grieux’s relationship is at the core of the drama and one would be remiss in not speaking to Netrebko and Eyvazov’s well-developed chemistry. Their initial interactions are far more muted, a sense of timidness emanating from lighter vocal tones and hesitation. But by the climax of “Vedete? Io son Fedele” the two sing as one, every syllable, accent, breathe and portamento perfectly synchronized between the two singers.
The famed Act 2 duet “Tu, tu amore? Tu” is a fantastic battle of wills until they come together at the apex of the section. Of particular note is the central section where Manon is working her seductive magic on Des Grieux and has won him over. The voices slowly but surely give way to frenzied singing, Netrebko’s emphatic and heavily oscillated “Ah! Vien’s” over Eyvazov’s equally potent repetitions of “T’amo” (both in the upper range for the singers) has an erotic appeal rarely heard. There is nothing “polite” about this passion or love.
Now onto Act 4, which is single-handedly the one reason, this is a must buy. Incidentally, Netrebko and Eyvazov do have a recording of the fourth act in Netrebko’s recent “Verismo” CD release, but this performance puts that one, as good as it is, to shame. The difference really comes down to the spontaneity and dramatic truth that comes from a live performance. While there is no denying that the studio recording has dramatic weight, this one is full of the “desperate passion.”
No detail is overlooked in how these two dramatize this gorgeous passage of music, a symphonic work in its own right. From Eyvazov’s insanity as he implodes with “Un soccorso! Un soccoroso!” to the dead silences that Netrebko litters throughout her closing phrases, this is dramatic genius. Netrebko rips the audience’s heart out with her interpretation of “Sola, Perduta, abbandonata,” particularly with her ability to stretch every phrase and then let it die out in the most subtle of manners. This allows her to build the climaxes economically and throw the gut-punch with ample buildup. But then there are quieter moments that might be even more searing, particularly the phrase “Tutto e finito,” which is delivered so quietly and with such a thin voice, that you might miss it. It is the vocal embodiment of defeat in every possible way. Another particularly striking passage in this act comes after that aria, “Fra le tue bracci,” Eyvazov’s voice growing stronger as Netrebko’s softens and weakens, death come to one while madness takes over the other. Netrebko’s continues its downward spiral, the vibrato fading, the volume losing its strength and the phrasing growing more detached and paused; Eyvazov’s eventually starts to lose its energy and his final line, “Mio Dio,” lacks any of the potency that had so characterized the rest of his performance.
Mixed Supporting Team
Armiliato and the Munchner Rundfunkorchester are perfect partners with the two leads, the rich layers and sounds captured beautifully throughout the recording. All the climaxes feel like tidal waves of sound that, despite their lush and full sounds, never drown out the singers. More quiet moments also resonate powerfully. The ostinato winds during the Act 3 concertato are particularly striking in their ominous nature. The chamber music at the start of the intermezzo draws the listener in with its intimate quality and lush string sounds.
In supporting roles are baritone Armando Pina as Manon’s brother Lescaut and Carlos Chausson as Geronte, a rich man obsessed with possessing Manon. The choice of the two men presents a unique quandary for the listener as their two voices share a similar gravely quality. On one level, Pina’s coarse sound offers a nice contrast to Netrebko’s more velvety sound, but the fact that he sounds so much like Chausson makes it difficult to differentiate the two men during their Act 1 exchange. This is undoubtedly not an issue for an audience experiencing the live performance, but for the listener, particularly one that is not familiar with the libretto, it makes for some confusing listening.
It is essential to note that for all the beautiful spontaneity and dramatic truth that comes from listening to a live performance, this option is not without some annoyances, minor as they might be. The first track of Disc one starts with applause, an awkward and possibly unnecessary choice given that starting with the first notes of the score are what the listener expects. There are also a few moments where sound dips unexpectedly from the singers, creating an uneven soundscape that makes the listener question the detail given to the post-production of the recording. At the 2:20 mark of track 15 on Disc 1 Netrebko hits a climactic high note during the duet with Pina. In the middle of the note, the volume suddenly drops on Netrebko’s note. There are not many such incidences, other dips likely from performers turning away from the microphones. That said, none of these issues were present in any of Netrebko’s other live performance releases (“Iolanta” and “Giovanna d’Arco”) and these kinds of “mistakes” are not the quality one expects from such a highly respected company as Deutsche Grammophon.
Those issues, however, cannot take away from the nuance that Netrebko and Eyvazov bring to the lead roles in performances that will certainly leave the listener emotionally drained but fulfilled.