OP3298. MANON, Live Performance, 15 Dec., 1951, w.Cleva Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Licia Albanese, Giuseppe di Stefano, Martial Singher, Jerome Hines, Alessio de Paolis, etc. (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-805.
“I have a feeling that this performance of MANON would cause a number of French musicologists to jump from a window on a high floor. There is a great deal about it that could not be more wrong from the point of view of authentic French style. The Lescaut, Martial Singher, is the only native French speaker in the cast, and the other leads (and the conductor) were all specialists in the core Italian repertoire. All of that notwithstanding, I found listening to this historic Met broadcast from 1951 a thrilling experience.
First, we get to hear tenor Giuseppe di Stefano in his all-too-brief prime, producing honeyed tones throughout his range. His soft singing in ‘Le rêve’ is exquisite. Some may feel it borders on crooning, but in fact the body of the tone does not disappear, and di Stefano caresses Massenet’s melodic line lovingly. His ‘Ah! Fuyez!’ is full-throated, no-holds-barred, and impassioned vocalism. Di Stefano’s French may not be perfect, but it is actually reasonably idiomatic (he was also singing Faust at the Met at this time), and the sheer sound of the voice is highly suited to this music. Very few tenor voices have been able to match di Stefano’s for utter beauty of timbre in his prime. Des Grieux was a role he had already sung to acclaim at La Scala and elsewhere; the music and the character are in his blood.
Licia Albanese was, of course, also firmly identified with the Italian repertoire, particularly at the Met, where she virtually owned the role of Cio-Cio San, though she also frequently sang Micaëla in CARMEN. She was always able to persuasively convey fragility, which is appropriate here. Yet many of the characters for which Albanese was known appeared fragile on the surface but revealed real strength underneath. Massenet’s Manon is a complex and constantly evolving woman, moving from initial innocence to sexual awakening. She begins with child-like shyness and goes through growing self-confidence until arriving at the final tragedy. Albanese was capable through vocal color and subtlety of inflection of presenting the psychological arc of the character, and the result is both convincing and moving.
In their scenes together (and there are many, this being an opera of duets almost as much as Gounod’s ROMÉO ET JULIETTE) the chemistry between di Stefano and Albanese is sensational. They seem to feed off each other’s passionate singing, and genuinely interact rather than vocalizing at each other.
Except for the stylish and well-sung Lescaut of Singher, a baritone who sang a number of important French roles at the Met between 1943 and 1959, the remainder is an example of generalized international operatic style. Jerome Hines is a gruff but solid-toned Count des Grieux, and Alessio de Paolis a particularly effective Guillot. Fausto Cleva conducts with energy and a good deal of forward thrust, but he’s a bit more aggressive than is ideal for this music. The performance also suffers from some of the traditional cuts of the period, being some 35-40 minute short of a complete reading of the score.
For so many reasons one could not recommend this as a basic MANON in an opera collection. But for anyone who loves beautiful, emotionally committed singing, and who recognizes the irreplaceable vocal qualities that di Stefano and Albanese brought to their public, this is a treasurable and thrilling release. St. Laurent Studio has done their usual excellent job of transferring the Met’s well-balanced monaural recording. There is no libretto or synopsis, only a track listing and cast.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“Savoring Albanese and Di Stefano as the enamored pair, our musical tastebuds will likely relish the pasta more than the sauce (especially with Cleva conducting…reinforcing the passionate avowals of the lovers with expansive phrasing). But with two such elegant performers in the Italian style, appetite is amply whetted….[ Di Stefano’s] Des Grieux is all innocence and honest wonder as he first addresses Manon. Ardor is the nub of Di Stefano’s stage persona and vocal manner, and he cannot shelter it for long; it flames into passionate song as Des Grieux convinces Manon to fly to Paris wih him. The house erupts in a burst of excitement as the two close the first act with ringing top notes. The later acts confirm the immediacy of Di Stefano’s art; velvety tones and sincerity of expression are sufficient warranty for his obvious confidence in his charm. One of the few modern tenors to command both the mezza voce for ‘Le rêve’ and the full-throated vocalism required for the seminary aria, he does not disappoint in either…. Di Stefano’s voice is all of a piece; it glides easily from piano to forte and back again….Des Grieux’ agony is patent and Di Stefano’s vocalism moving….Within the silent walls of St. Sulpice, [Albanese’s] recitation chillingly evokes the austerity of the ancient church. And her skill beguiles not only Des Grieux but her radio audience as she twines Massenet’s sinuous lines round and about, seducing the reluctant seminarian with hoops of aural steel that bind him to her and a life of love and degradation….few sopranos depict the wayward girl’s feverish thirst for life and love as convincingly as she.”
- Paul Jackson, SIGN-OFF FOR THE OLD MET, pp.53-54.