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ClassicsOnline Home » PUCCINI, G.: Manon Lescaut [Opera] (Callas, Di Stefano, La Scala, Serafin) (1957)
Transferred by the award-winning Mark Obert-Thorn, this 1957 recording of Manon Lescaut with Callas singing the title rôle and Di Stefano as des Grieux, was one of Callas’s last complete recordings at La Scala, Milan. Although the strain of her recent recording of Turandot (Naxos 8.111334–35) sometimes takes its toll, her command of Manon is complete. Those pages that are rarely sung accurately by other lyric sopranos, for example ‘L’ora, o Tirsi’ from Act II, Callas sings with polish and precision, executing the triplets with perfect rhythmic command.
Great Opera Recordings
Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)
Lyric Drama in Four Acts
Libretto by Marco Praga, Domenico Oliva, Ruggiero Leoncavallo, Luigi Illica, Giuseppe Giacosa and Giulio Ricordi, based on L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prevost
Manon Lescaut - Maria Callas (soprano)
Chevalier des Grieux - Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor)
Lescaut - Giulio Fioravanti (baritone)
Geronte di Ravoir - Franco Calabrese (bass)
Edmondo - Dino Formichini (tenor)
The Innkeeper - Carlo Forti (bass)
The Dancing Master - Vito Tattone (tenor)
The Madrigal Singer - Fiorenza Cossotto (mezzo-soprano)
Sergeant of the Royal Archers - Giuseppe Morresi (bass)
Lamplighter - Franco Ricciardi (tenor)
The Ship’s Captain - Franco Ventriglia (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan
(Chorus Master: Norberto Mola)
Recorded at the Teatro della Scala, Milan, 18–20, 22 and 24–27 July, 1957
First issued on Columbia 33CX 1583 through 1585
Reissue Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
Callas as Manon Lescaut
During the summer of 1957 Maria Meneghini Callas made her last two complete recordings for Columbia/Angel at La Scala, Milan. In the first five years of her La Scala career she had made between 44 and 55 appearances each season but by 1957 the number had dropped to thirty. That year she sang Amina in Bellini’s La sonnambula, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Ifigenia in Gluck’s Ifigenia in Aulide, all in Visconti’s sensational productions. Although EMI had recorded La sonnambula in May [Naxos 8.111284–85], during the summer, notwithstanding the clamour, she did not make those of Anna Bolena or Ifigenia, but instead Turandot and Manon Lescaut. By that time neither rôle suited her; she had not sung Turandot for more than seven years and would not again, while Manon Lescaut she never sang. Years before, in the autumn of 1949, she was announced to sing Act IV in a RAI broadcast and in 1951 she had discussed making a recording of it with Dario Soria for Cetra records, but neither performance took place. She did however record the Act II aria, In quelle trine morbide and that from Act IV, Sola, perduta, abbandonata, in September 1954 in a selection of Puccini arias [Naxos: 8.111275], and also programmed it in one of her very last recitals in Japan in 1974.
In the 1950s, as Walter Legge her record producer well knew, Puccini’s operas were still dominant at the world’s leading opera houses and many famous singers, such as Renata Tebaldi (1922–2004) and Victoria de los Angeles (1923–2005) were busy making recordings. He does not seem to have had much taste for many of the operas Callas was singing on stage for the first time in years, not only Anna Bolena, but Cherubini’s Medea, which would be her next complete recording, for characteristically he had no plans to record it and was quite prepared to let the Italian firm of Ricordi make it instead. Whereas he knew the German repertory au fond and as well as standard pieces, he made a bevy of recordings of untypical works, ancient and modern, some with his wife, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1915–2006), including Cornelius’s Der Barbier von Baghdad and Orff’s Die Kluge every bit as recherché
as Callas’s repertory then was.
Though Callas may not have known much of Manon, and whatever one can say for or against her undertaking it at this stage of her career, there is not the slightest doubt as to her complete command of the music. Those pages we are accustomed never to hear accurately sung by the usual lyric soprano, for example, L’ora, o Tirsi, in Act II, she sings with polish and precision, executing the triplets with perfect exactitude—indeed, all the florid figures and trills she turns immaculately and does not make us wonder why Puccini bothers to trip verismo sopranos up writing in a faux eighteenth-century style. In the preceding duet with Lescaut, Per me tu lotti, she may sing every note with her customary rhythmic accuracy but the deleterious effect of recording Turandot is all too obvious; her voice sounds thin and wavery and her tone, in the climactic passage, ‘vieni! vieni!’, scarcely has sufficient plenitude to suit Puccini’s accompaniment, nor can she make the right effect with the sustained top C at the end, which just yaps away. By this time she and/or Legge must have had some reservations as to the state of her voice for whereas all her previous recordings up to and including Turandot had been first published within the following year Manon Lescaut had to wait until the end of 1959, by which time she was no longer Maria Meneghini Callas, having run off with Onassis and the great years of her La Scala reign were over.
Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca in 1858 into a family with long-established musical traditions extending back at least to the early eighteenth century. It was natural that he should follow this tradition and become a musician, and alter the death of his father, when the boy was five, it was arranged that he should inherit the position of organist at the church of S. Martino, which meanwhile would be held for him by his uncle. He was trained as a chorister and as an organist, and only turned to more ambitious composition at the age of seventeen. A performance of Verdi’s opera Aida in Pisa in 1876 inspired operatic aspirations, which could only be pursued adequately at a major musical centre. Four years later he was able to enter the conservatory in Milan, assisted financially by an uncle and by a scholarship. There his teachers were Antonio Bazzini, director of the conservatory from 1882 and now chiefly remembered by other violinists for one attractive addition to their repertoire, and Amilcare Ponchielli, then near the end of his career.
Puccini’s first opera was Le Villi, an operatic treatment of a subject better known nowadays from the ballet Giselle by Adam. It failed to win the competition for which it had been entered, but won, instead, a staging, through the agency of Boito, and publication by Ricordi, who commissioned the opera Edgar, produced at La Scala in 1889 to relatively little effect. It was in 1893 that Puccini won his first great success with his version of the Abbé Prévost’s novel Manon Lescaut, a work that established him as a possible successor to Verdi. La Bohème followed in 1896, Tosca in 1900 and Madama Butterfly four years later. Puccini’s last opera, left unfinished at his death in 1924, was the oriental Turandot.
At the suggestion of the publisher Ricordi a possible opera with a Russian setting had been suggested, after the failure of Puccini’s second opera Edgar, with a libretto by Giacosa, co-author of the texts of three of the later operas. This Puccini rejected in favour of a libretto to be devised by Leoncavallo, not yet known as a composer, a text based on the Abbé Prévost’s novel Manon Lescaut. Disagreement led to a scenario prepared by Mario Praga, versified by Domenico Oliva, and after further disagreement between the composer and writers Luigi Illica was commissioned to make revisions. The question of authorship presented obvious problems, since Ricordi and Puccini, Leoncavallo, Praga, Oliva, Illica and Giacosa had all had a hand in the work and at the suggestion of the last named no author’s name appeared on the published libretto.
The Abbé Prévost, Antoine-François Prévost d’Exiles, was born in 1697 and was by turns a Jesuit novice, a soldier, a Benedictine monk and a convert to Protestantism. He was forced to seek exile from his native France in 1728 and lived until 1734 in England and Holland, undergoing a period of
imprisonment in the former country for alleged forgery. He was allowed to return to France as a Benedictine monk and was briefly in the service of the Prince de Conti as chaplain until compelled to escape abroad again when he was accused of writing various satirical pamphlets. He returned to France in 1742 and continued until his death in 1763 as a writer, leading a life complicated by mistresses and by debt. His works included translations of Richardson’s novels Pamela and Clarissa Harlowe and the seven volumes of Mémoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité, written during his early exile. In the seventh volume the gentleman of quality of the title receives the confidences of the Chevalier des Grieux, a weak-willed hero who resembles in many ways the author. This classical novel is in its elevation of sensibility and in the strength of the passions depicted a precursor of Romanticism. It served as the inspiration of earlier operas by Auber and by Massenet, the latter first staged in Paris in 1884 and bearing the simple title Manon.
Puccini’s version of Manon Lescaut was first mounted at the Teatro Regio in Turin on 1 February 1893, the year and month of the first production of Verdi’s Falstaff in Milan. The opera proved an immediate success. It was staged at Covent Garden and at the Grand Opera House of Philadelphia the
following year. There were subsequent revisions and temporary changes, with alterations in orchestration suggested by Toscanini for performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, these last incorporated in the later published score. The libretto itself, effective enough, in spite of its multiple authorship, offers certain problems, not least in the omission of the original second act suggested by Praga and Oliva and set in the Paris apartment of Des Grieux, although what has happened in the interval between the present first and second acts is quickly apparent.
Giuseppe Di Stefano (1921–2008), born near Catania, Sicily, had a brilliant but short career. His was one of the most beautiful lyric tenor voices of the
last century. He began singing light music then, following a brief period of study with the baritone Luigi Montesanto, made his opera début in 1946 as Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon at Reggio Emilia, after which his rise to fame was rapid. In 1947 he appeared at La Scala, Milan, also as Des Grieux, and in 1948 at the Metropolitan, New York, as the Duke in Rigoletto. At first his repertory included Fenton in Falstaff, Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia,
Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi, Alfredo in La traviata and Faust, but it did not take long before he began undertaking heavier rôles, such as Cavaradossi, Don José in Carmen, Radames in Aida, Canio in Pagliacci and even Alvaro in La forza del destino. Sadly the
great years of his career were soon over, and by 1961, trying to make more out of his voice than nature had put in, he made his last appearance at La Scala. From
1944 for HMV he recorded songs and arias, and from 1953 for Angel/Columbia, with Callas, Edgardo, Arturo, Cavaradossi, Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana, Canio, the Duke, Manrico in Il trovatore, Rodolfo, Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera and Des Grieux in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.
The rôle of Geronte is sung by bass Franco Calabrese, who was born in Palermo in 1923. He sang widely throughout Italy before singing for a number of seasons at La Scala, Milan, during the 1950s and 1960s. His rôles in this house included the Doctor in Pelléas et Mélisande, Geronio in Il Turco in Italia, Count Robinson in Il matrimonio segreto, Geronte in Manon Lescaut, Marchese di Calatrava in La forza del destino, Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte and Antonio in Le nozze di Figaro. He sang (and later recorded) Almaviva in the 1955 production of Le nozze di Figaro at Glyndebourne. He also recorded extensively as a comprimario with both La Scala and Rome forces for a number of labels.
The mezzo-soprano Fiorenza Cossotto (b.1935) made her début at La Scala in 1957 as Sister Mathilde in Dialogues des Carmélites, making regular
appearances in the same house until 1973. She made her Covent Garden début in 1959 when she appeared with Callas in Cherubini’s Médée. Her career took her to major opera houses throughout the world, with effective performances in rôles that included those of Azucena, Amneris, Eboli and Adalgisa.
Tullio Serafin (1878–1968), born at Rottanova di Cavarzere, near Venice, was one of the great conductors of Italian opera. After studying at the Milan Conservatory at first he was a violinist in the orchestra at La Scala, Milan, then in 1900 at Ferrara began a career as a conductor. Engagements followed in Turin and Rome. Through more than half a century he appeared at Covent Garden, London (1907, 1931, 1959–60), La Scala, Milan (1910–1914, 1917, 1918, 1940, 1946–7), Colón, Buenos Aires (1914, 1919, 1920, 1928, 1937, 1938, 1949, 1951), San Carlo, Naples (1922–3, 1940–1, 1949–58), Metropolitan,
New York (1924–34), the Rome Opera (1934–43, 1962), Lyric Opera, Chicago (1955, 1957–58), and numerous other opera houses in Italy and abroad. His
repertory was vast. He conducted conventional and unconventional operas as well as introducing a variety of new works and worked with numerous famous singers, including Battistini, Shalyapin, Ponselle, Gigli, Callas and Sutherland. His recording career was exhaustive and embraced the HMV (1939) Verdi Requiem as well as both Angel/Columbia Normas (1954 and 1960) with Callas.
The opera is set in the second half of the eighteenth century. The scene is a large square in Amiens, near the Paris Gate. To the right there is an avenue and to the left an inn, with a porch under which there are various tables for customers. An outside staircase leads to the first floor of the inn. Students, townsfolk, girls and soldiers stroll in the square and in the avenue, while other groups stand chatting or sitting at the tables drinking and gambling.
 Edmondo, a student, sings, half in jest, in praise of the evening, interrupted by the other students. He welcomes the appearance of working-girls and declares he will compose a song for them, echoed by his companions. The girls enter the square, singing of the pleasure and pain of evening, and now the students welcome Des Grieux, a fellow-student, and Edmondo invites him to join them, and when he does not reply, suggests that he is hopelessly in love. Des Grieux, however, shrugs and claims that he knows nothing of love, tragedy or comedy. Some of the students chat with the girls, while others doubt the claim of Des Grieux, suspecting disappointment in love.
 Turning to the girls, he pretends to seek love among them, to the amusement of his friends.
 He is congratulated by Edmondo and the other students, who, with the girls and passers by, join in celebrating the pleasures of the evening. A postilion’s horn is heard and a coach appears from the left.
 Everyone crowds round to see who is coming, as the coach comes to a halt in front of the inn. First Lescaut descends, then Geronte, who gallantly assists Manon
down. The other travellers descend in their turn. Edmondo and the students remark on Manon’s beauty and Lescaut summons the landlord, who welcomes Lescaut and Geronte and ushers them into the inn. Lescaut signals to Manon to wait outside. The crowd disperses and some sit drinking and gambling.
 Des Grieux, struck by Manon’s beauty, addresses her, asking her name. She tells him that she is Manon Lescaut and that the next day she will leave, destined for a convent. Des Grieux, fascinated by her beauty, plans to help her escape her fate. Called by her brother, Manon goes inside, promising in the end that she will return after dark to meet Des Grieux.
 Des Grieux sings in praise of the incomparable beauty of Manon and her gentle innocence.
 Edmondo and the other students have watched the pair and now approach, ironically congratulating him, to the annoyance of Des Grieux, who leaves them, as
they chat with the girls, who echo the earlier words of Des Grieux. Geronte and Lescaut come down the staircase, talking together, and the latter reveals his true
opinion of his family’s decision to put Manon in a convent. He is interested to learn of the wealth of the tax-farmer Geronte, and accepts the older man’s invitation to dinner.
 Geronte goes back into the inn, and Lescaut watches the young men gambling and willingly agrees to join them. Geronte comes out and seeing Lescaut thus
occupied tells the landlord to have a coach and horses ready within the hour behind the inn, for a man and a young girl to go to Paris. He gives the landlord gold.
 Edmondo has observed Geronte and guessed his intentions. As Des Grieux comes in, Edmondo tells him what is being plotted and agrees to help him outwit both
Lescaut, who is absorbed in the game, and Geronte.
 Manon appears on the staircase, looks round and, as she sees Des Grieux, descends to meet him, although she knows it is unwise to be with him, even if this
should be their final meeting. Des Grieux declares his love, to which she clearly responds.
 Lescaut now rises from the table, half drunk, and calls for more wine, which the students, acting on Edmondo’s earlier intelligence, quickly see that he has, while Manon and Des Grieux draw back. He now tells her of the abduction Geronte has planned, and offers himself in the old man’s place. Edmondo tells them that the coach is ready, and Des Grieux urges Manon to escape with him. Edmondo gives Des Grieux a cloak to hide his face and the three hurry into the inn, while Geronte emerges and, seeing Lescaut busy at the table, looks satisfied with the way things are going.
 Now, he thinks, the moment for seduction has arrived, and he calls for supper, watched by Edmondo and some of his friends, amused at what has transpired.
Geronte tells the landlord to bid Manon to supper, at which Edmondo steps forward and tells him that Manon has gone. Geronte now tells Lescaut the news and
insists on immediate pursuit. Lescaut, however, realises that Des Grieux, as a student, will soon run short of money. It will be time enough to follow the pair to Paris the next day, when Geronte will have every chance of success. Meanwhile they can eat.
The second act as originally proposed was set in the relatively modest apartment of Des Grieux. Puccini’s version of the opera takes this part of the story for granted, and proceeds to a scene set in the elegant salon of Geronte’s house in Paris. At the back are two large French windows; at the right rich curtains hide an alcove and to the left a richly-appointed dressing-table stands near a window. The room is furnished with a sofa, chairs, arm-chairs and a table. Manon is sitting at the dressing-table, with a large white hairdresser’s cape, while a hairdresser fusses round her, assisted by two apprentices.
 Manon gives orders to the hairdresser, who hurries to do her bidding. Lescaut comes in, as she tries to choose which beauty-patch to wear. Manon’s toilet now complete, the hairdresser removes the cape, revealing Manon richly clothed, and with his assistants leaves the room.
 Lescaut applauds her appearance and reminds her how he had saved her from life with an impoverished student, although Des Grieux was a good fellow.
Manon, who had left her lover without even a farewell kiss, is anxious for news of him.
 In all her finery, she misses the simpler life with her young lover.
 Lescaut tells her that Des Grieux has now turned to gambling, with his help, and has made money, the way to Manon’s heart. She remembers her former life with her lover, while from time to time admiring herself in the glass, asking Lescaut if he approves of her appearance.
 People enter, carrying sheets of music, ready to perform a madrigal by Geronte. Manon gives her brother a purse, bidding him pay the musicians off. Friends of Geronte can be seen through the French windows entering the house to be received by their host, and now a quartet of musicians come in and start to tune their instruments, but Manon is bored. She stands up and goes back to meet Geronte, who comes into the room with a dancing-master to start a lesson in the minuet.
 She is admired by Geronte and his guests, gentlemen and priests.
 Manon dances, instructed by the dancing-master. The lesson over, Geronte suggests that it is time to go out. The dancing-master and musicians go out, as the
guests too take their leave and Geronte goes to order a sedan-chair.
 Manon takes up a hand-mirror and admires herself. Hearing someone approach, she asks if the chair is ready, but it is Des Grieux who enters. She asks if he can still love her, but he remains bitter at her faithlessness, while she begs his forgiveness, as their old love lives again and she falls into his arms.
 At this point Geronte comes in and addresses the couple ironically, reproaching Manon for her ingratitude. She hands him her mirror and tells him to look at himself. He is deeply offended and goes out, threatening that they will meet again soon.
 Des Grieux urges Manon to escape with him at once, but she hesitates, reluctant to leave the luxury in which she has lived with Geronte, while he laments his own degradation as a gambler. Manon again seeks forgiveness and swears to be true to her young lover.
 Lescaut hurries in breathlessly and tells them that Geronte has denounced Manon and that constables are on the way to seize her. There is no time to be lost, but Manon is anxious to take her jewels with her, while Des Grieux urges haste. Lescaut in desperation pushes the pair into the alcove, but Manon runs out again, as the constables enter, followed by Geronte with soldiers. He laughs at her, as she drops some of her jewels, and Lescaut prudently takes the sword of Des Grieux, preventing him from arrest and holding him back, as the constables drag Manon away.
 An Intermezzo covers the journey of the imprisoned Manon to Le Havre, where she is to be transported, condemned, the music reflecting the despair of Des
Grieux, who has done all he can to secure her release.
The scene is set in a square near the harbour in Le Havre, the harbour itself can be seen in the background and at the left a corner of the barracks. At the front is a barred window and to the side, facing the square, a closed gate, guarded by a sentry. Part of a war-ship can be seen in the harbour and to the right a house and a narrow street. On the corner an oil-lamp flickers. Dawn is breaking.
 Des Grieux and Lescaut are watching, the latter claiming that he has bribed the sentry and that Manon will soon be free. A sergeant leads a group of soldiers
out, as the guard changes, and Lescaut points out the man he has bribed. He signals to the man, who goes away and then taps on the iron bars of the ground-floor window, as Des Grieux watches anxiously.
 Manon appears and Des Grieux seizes her hand, while Lescaut leaves the couple together.
 A lamp-lighter comes in, singing his song, while Des Grieux tells Manon how her escape has been planned and what she must do. She throws him a kiss and retires from the window. A shot is heard in the distance and Des Grieux, startled, runs to the narrow street.
 Voices are heard raising the alarm, and Lescaut rushes in, exhorting Des Grieux to save himself. Lescaut seeks to restrain Des Grieux, who has drawn his
sword, and Manon too, coming to the window, tells him to make his escape. People come running from all sides, asking each other what has happened. There is a roll of drums and the door of the barracks opens. A sergeant and soldiers come out, and with them a group of chained women. They stop in front of the gate. The
sergeant orders the crowd back and from the ship in the harbour come the captain and a group of marines.
 The sergeant now calls the roll of prisoners, and as each one is called, she moves to join the marines, while the captain marks the name off on his list. Lescaut endeavours to arouse the sympathy of the watching townspeople for Manon, seduced and betrayed by an old man, who took her from her young lover. Des
Grieux manages to stand near Manon and their hands meet. She bids him farewill, to his despair.
 The sergeant orders the women and their guards away and pulls Manon away from Des Grieux, who threatens him, with the approval of the onlookers. He
breaks down in tears and begs the captain, who has intervened, to allow him to sail with his beloved Manon, even as a cabin boy. The prisoners have now been taken
onto the ship and the captain, moved by the pleas of Des Grieux, grants his request. Des Grieux, in joy, kisses his hand, while Manon turns and, guessing what has happened, shows her own delight. She opens her arms to him, as Des Grieux runs to her. Lescaut shakes his head and walks away.
The final act is set in America. The scene is an endless plain on the borders of New Orleans. The country is bare and undulating, the horizon far distant. Clouds cover the sky, as evening fails. Manon and Des Grieux come slowly forward. They are poorly dressed and seem tired out. Manon is pale and exhausted and leans on Des Grieux who wearily supports her.
 He tells her to lean all her weight on him, as the road comes to an end, but she can go no further.
 She faints and Des Grieux tries desperately to revive her. Coming to, she tells him to leave her and seek help.
 Laying her on rising ground, but still in doubt and despair, he resolves to do what he can to bring help, even in this wilderness.
 Alone, Manon realises death is near.
 Des Grieux returns and she falls into his arms, assuring him again and again of her love. Her faults will be forgotten but her love will never die, she tells him, her last words, leaving Des Grieux to fall grief-stricken on her body.
Manon Lescaut was transferred primarily from the best portions of two sets of first edition British LP pressings. A couple of instances of distortion during loud passages appear to be inherent on the original master tapes.
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PUCCINI, G.: Manon Lescaut [Opera] (Callas, Di Ste...