CAST: Manon Lescaut: Anna Netrebko, Renato De Grieux: Yusif Eyvazov, Lescaut: Armando Piña, Geronte di Ravoir: Carlos Chausson, Edmondo: Benjamin Bernheim, Landlord: Erik Anstine, Dancing master: Patrick Vogel, a Musician: Szilvia Vörös, a Lamplighter: Patrick Vogel, a Naval Captain: Simon Shibambu, a Sergeant: Erik Anstine
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger
Marco Armiliato, conductor
Recorded live at the 2016 Salzburg Festival, Großes Festspielhaus, in August 2016
Deutsche Grammophon, 2016
In a certain sense, this post is about a paradox. I hoped to listen to something exceptional in this live recording of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, above all because I read several enthusiastic reviews of the semi-staged performance with Anna Netrebko which took place at Salzburg in August 2016. Maybe I was expecting too much (if it is possible to expect “too much” from a singer who is considered the leading soprano of our times), but I have been really disappointed by this Manon Lescaut from many points of view and, what seems odd at first glance, I found something remarkable where I did not think to find anything more than good.
This “paradox” does not include conductor Marco Armiliato because I was expecting from him a wonderful direction and this is exactly what I heard. He is undoubtedly a great interpreter of Manon Lescaut and captures all the nuances of the score, from the excitement of the tavern in the first act, to the affected beginning of Act II, to the sorrow and the tragedy of the last act. This is maybe the most impressive part of his conduction, because he finds the colours to express pain, anguish and desolation with disarming clarity.
On the contrary, Anna Netrebko as Manon disappointed me for more or less the same reasons I mentioned for her album Verismo, where she sings the last scene of Manon Lescaut with her husband Yusif Eyvazov. To insist on these imperfections is rather depressing than sadistic to me mainly because I have been persuaded from her Bohème with Rolando Villazon that her voice is perfect for Puccini. Actually, this is the first thing I have thought when I started listening to her, but soon after her not always precise intonation and the “swollen” pronunciation which makes every vowel sound like an “o” and which makes some of her words almost unintelligible, started to hurt my ears. Moreover, her characterization of Manon is not as deep and careful as it may be expected from a soprano who have monopolized the role in the last years.
Netrebko is not a cold or insensible singer, it is not this that I am going to say. I listened carefully to her performance and I found many nice and interesting expressions in her Manon, as in the duet with De Grieux in the first act (Vedete? Io son fedele), where there is a melancholic “eppur lieta, assai lieta un tempo fui!”, just to make an example of her skill. What is a problem for me is that I have the impression that she focuses only on some words or sentences and then she neglects the rest.
This is what happens in In quelle trine morbide, which was boring except for the sentence “un freddo che m’agghiaccia”, and in the pivotal last scene. Sola, perduta, abbandonata shows a propensity, which I did not found elsewhere, to reinforce the “r” (as in “perduta” “strazio crudel”) to accentuate the desperation of the character and there are also beautiful phrases as “intorno a me s’oscura il ciel”, “tutto è finito”, “amore, aita”. In the rest of the scene, there is also room for some tenderness in “fra le tue braccia, amore” and for a sorrowful “rammenti, dimmi, la luminosa mia giovinezza?”, but Manon’s last words are indistinguishable.
Apart from these moments, Netrebko sings as if her thoughts are somewhere else and only her beautiful voice gives some interest to her Manon. If I could found the same attention to every word, to every sentence, I could have been contented with Netrebko’s Manon and I could have considered it one of the best I have ever heard – but, without this “inner strength”, I cannot think of it without regret.
As for Yusif Eyvazov (De Grieux), his performance was far from being excellent too. He tries to do his best and his zeal is always evident and admirable, but there is a difference between recognizing these efforts and to like their result. It is a fact that his voice is not overwhelmed by the orchestra only thanks to the merciful conduction of Armiliato, but sometimes this happens anyway, as in Vedete? Io son fedele, where he has to fight against Netrebko’s strongest voice too. Donna non vidi mai and Eyvazov’s singing overall are compromised by his excessive impetus, which betrays some anxiety, and by his unpleasant outbursts, which are more frequent in the high register. There is no room for tenderness and for other feelings in the Azerbaijani tenor and this and his other flaws make him sound annoying for much of the time.
I said that this Manon Lescaut has some unexpected good sides and these are represented by Armando Piña (Lescaut) and Carlos Chausson (Geronte). Piña is a mischievous Lescaut, who does not lack irony and sarcasm, of which he makes plenty use when he addresses Geronte in the first act. Lescaut is characterized by what I would like to define a “mimic singing”, which make you guess everything he has in mind and that make clear that he thinks more than what he says. This is such a fine characterization that it is a pleasure to listen to him again and again. As for the veteran Chausson, he is a fine Geronte, who finely portrays the lustful old man, with some nuances of tenderness and affection in the quieter moments.