Manon Lescaut, Puccini's first big hit, has an admirable recording history, and this new release is a worthy addition to the ranks. Certainly, the piece is flawed - the Boheme-like bustle of Act 1 gives way to the meatier Act 2, where all the important action (and some not-so-important) takes place; thereafter there the tragedy races preciptously to its sun-scorched conclusion in the Louisiana desert. Massenet's version may capture better the brittleness of Manon's world and the enigmatic nature of its central character, but Puccini wins hands down in the passion stakes. The music is full of life and invention, tantalisingly foreshadowing most of the composer's later work, and the love music is as explosive and hot-blooded as much of what preceded and followed in Italian opera.
This recording is taken from live performances at La Scala in 1998. Muti's conducting is really excellent, capturing the broad sweep of the work and much of the detail. However, the set's main attraction is its leading couple. Jose Cura and Maria Guleghina look wonderful in the accompanying photographs - it's hard to imagine a better looking soprano and tenor able to sing these roles today. Guleghina is hardly a natural coquette, which means that Acts 1 and 2 suffer a little (her request for the hair curlers sounds decidedly Tosca-like) but what a vibrant and exciting voice this is! Some flat high Bs aside, she brings to Manon's arching phrases a real Puccinian "lift" and spares nothing in the last act monologue. The effect of her singing in the theatre must have been overwhelming. Cura, too, gives his considerable all. His voice, dark, woody undertones and all, sounds at times like the answer to everyone's prayers for a new Domingo - yet he infuriates too with moments of tightness and loss of support. But in his duets with Guleghina - and particularly in the last act - he is absolutely splendid. Lucio Gallo is suitably sleazy as Manon's brother, bringing verbal piquancy and burnished sound to the Act 2 duet; the supporting cast is admirable.
The set has stiff competition - Freni and Pavarotti (with Bartoli, no less, as the madrigal singer!), and Te Kanawa and Carreras, to name but two. For the frisson of live performance, and for sheer electricity, however, it is very much worth having - an admirable addition to any Puccini collection.