I was a bit taken aback to see a review stating that Callas was not a great Puccini singer. What makes that, to me, quite debateable, is the natureof the Puccini heroine: not as pure as many Verdi or Donizetti heroines, to be sure. Flawed. Often jealous. (These remarks do not apply, though, to Mimi, come to think of it---or to Violetta.)
And here we have it again: Manon, who leaves her real love Des Grieux to seek the riches that may be provided by a much-older protector. And yet we become attached to her and bewail her fate.
Both Callas and di Stefano have lost something from their voices by this point in time: both singers are rougher, and both become edgy in their upper ranges. But the power of their "storytelling" and the passion of their singing wins us over nonetheless.
From Des Grieux's ardent plea at the end of the third act to weasel his way aboard ship, so that he may follow Manon into exile---di Stefano, Callas and Maestro Serafin are in a zone. The last act is, quite simply, spellbinding.
Callas does produce a few wayward high notes in "Sola, perduta, abandonnata" but the effect of these dissipates rapidly. The sense of pending doom is palpable, but never overstated or overwrought. Di Stefano is with her, the whole way: his artfully delivered exclamation "Gelo di morte" begins the last chapter, so to speak.
This last act haunts: two artists capable of telling a tragic story with conviction, with taste, and with fervor---the listener is utterly convinced of their characters' love for one another. And Tullio Serafin once again shows us how it ought to be done.