OP3335. MANON LESCAUT, Live Performance, 31 March, 1956, w.Mitropoulos Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Licia Albanese, Jussi Björling, Frank Guarrera, Fernando Corena, etc. [Among the very best of the '50s Met broadcasts, due not merely to the stunning performance but as well to the extraordinary clarity of the sound!] (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-976.
“In Björling and Albanese [Mitropoulos] has a pair of artists who know how to put to use the vibrancy emanating from the pit. Each turns it to particular advantage, according to individual strengths. Björling is able to send out his robust, vividly colored tones in expansive fashion. Both the bright, prismatic upper voice and the more somber baritonal hues are present in undiluted form….Albanese, of course, supplies the more telling verisimilitude as she depicts the many moods of the volatile Manon. Her immersion in the character is complete – no musical nor dramatic inflection is ignored. Her soprano is in prime condition…and everywhere she meets the challenges of this virtuosic role head-on….Björling and Albanese, their interpretive skills honed by decades of experience, triumphantly surmount the symphonic tone poem which Mitropoulos has made of Puccini’s opera.”
- Paul Jackson, SATURDAY AFTERNOONS AT THE OLD MET, pp.242-43
“Björling and Albanese made a studio recording for RCA in 1954 that has been considered definitive by many (not all) reviewers, but this live performance features the two leads inspired by the presence of an audience and the momentum of a theatrical performance. It has conducting from Dimitri Mitropoulos that is alive to all the dramatic possibilities of the music. In the studio recording Jonel Perlea turned in a reasonably competent job but nothing on the level heard here. If I were to have only a single recording of MANON LESCAUT, it would be this one, despite its monaural sound. All of the individual components add up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Björling, while never a persuasive actor onstage, was a convincing actor with his voice, more so in live performances than the recording studio….His entrance arioso, ‘Tra voi belle’, announces both a voice and a musical presence of importance from the first phrase. ‘Donna non vidi mai’ is a true lyrical outpouring of deep emotion and magnificent tone. The love duet with Albanese is heartfelt, and Des Grieux’s frantic plea to join the ship at the harbor is almost scary in its intensity. The voice itself is, of course, one of the most naturally beautiful tenors in operatic history and it is ideally suited in both size and color for Puccini. It would be hard to imagine a better des Grieux.
For 26 years (1940–1966) Albanese was a mainstay of the Italian wing at the Met, singing 427 performances. Puccini was her specialty; except for Violetta and Desdemona she stayed away from the major Verdi roles. She was vocally best suited for displaying the fragility, vulnerability, ardor, and passion that are at the core of most of Puccini’s heroines. The voice was that of a lyric-spinto soprano with a very quick vibrato that gave it a unique character. Albanese was beloved by Met audiences in part because she threw herself into every performance, and this one is no exception. The huge ovation after ‘In quelle trine morbide’ lasts almost as long as the aria. In the final act, she and Björling are alive to every dramatic nuance while also pouring forth glorious vocalism.
This is an opera that stands or falls on the two lead singers, but the remainder of the cast is quite strong as well. Frank Guarrera would be an even more important baritone today, when he wouldn’t have to compete with Leonard Warren and Robert Merrill. His Lescaut is both well sung and vividly portrayed. Fernando Corena, normally thought of as a basso buffo in the Donizetti and Rossini repertoire, is a strong presence as Geronte. An interesting moment is the appearance of the lamplighter in the third act, sung by a future Otello and Samson, James McCracken.
As if all of this weren’t enough, Mitropoulos conducts with a complete identification with Puccini’ score, shaping the long lines with affection but always maintaining dramatic tension. He spent much of his career leading Italian operas in Florence and elsewhere in Europe. Mitropoulos was one of the few conductors who could lead completely idiomatic and persuasive performances of Mahler, Strauss, Berg, Puccini, and Verdi. He turns the famed Intermezzo into a five-minute symphonic poem, and throughout the opera he gives equal importance to the music’s tenderness and its dramatic fire.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE