This is a live performance from Barcelona in 2007 featuring two of the hottest names in opera at the moment - Natalie Dessay and Rolando Villazon - as the young lovers. It is a somewhat uneven performance, and the two are rather mismatched, but there are moments of absolute wonder which make this recording worth repeated viewing.
Dessay is a natural French speaker, Villazon is obviously not, and at times it sounds like they are almost singing in different languages, and his Italianate sound is sometimes too strong to overlook. And yet, his rendition of "En fermant les yeux" is so stunningly beautiful it could make grown men weep, and is the best moment on the whole disc. Just watch Dessay as she "acts" in response to his singing during this aria, and for a moment you can believe in them! Dessay is very athletic and physical in her performances, and this one is no different; her singing is very good, but sometimes I was too conscious of her acting for effect, rather than inhabiting the role.
The production by David McVicar is in a static set, the chorus as audience in galleries behind the stage, with a few props in each scene to suggest the setting; but rather than focus attention on the performers, I found it a little dull and unimaginative. The St Sulpice scene, for example, is set on a bare stage with a few chairs, which is perhaps meant to represent a church, but the power of Des Grieux' downfall before his God is somewhat diluted by this non-commital staging. The orchestral playing is fine under Victor Pablo Perez, and the supporting cast are satisfactory but not memorable (including Sam Ramey in unfortunate vocal decline).
So why watch this recording? Ultimately, for the opera itself - one of Massenet's finest achievements - and for the performances of Dessay and Villazon who deliver moments of greatness, it's just unfortunate that they cannot sustain the whole evening in such coruscating form.