Jules Massenet: Manon
Angela Gheorghiu, soprano (Manon), Roberto Alagna, tenor (Le Chevalier Des Grieux), Earle Patriarco, baritone(Lescaut), JosÈ van Dam, bass-baritone (Le Comte Des Grieux), Gilles Ragon, tenor (Guillot de Morfontaine), Orchestre Symphonique et Choeurs de la Monnaie, Antonio Pappano, Conductor. 

EMI  57005  (3 Discs). (F) (DDD) TT: 2:43:06  

In recent months the husband and wife team of Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu have provided some fine recordings. In particular, last year's releases of Werther (EMI) and La BohËme (London) were notable for the attractive, stylish, and committed vocalism of their principals. This new EMI recording of Jules Massenet's operatic masterpiece Manon offers more of the same.

On many levels the role of Manon is extremely challenging. During the course of the opera, the soprano interpreting the part must convincingly portray the metamorphosis of an innocent (well, relatively innocent) fifteen-year old girl into a ravishing, sensuous woman who finally dies, repentant for her sins. The dramatic challenges are matched by vocal requirements that include a voice of beauty, flexibility, and at times, power. And of course, a grasp of the French operatic idiom is a must for a truly great Manon. Such artists as Fanny Heldy, Germaine FÈraldy, Victoria de los Angeles, and Beverly Sills have surmounted these hurdles to a great degree, providing unforgettable recorded portrayals.

While Angela Gheorghiu may not erase memories of these great artists, she certainly deserves to be mentioned in the same company. Ms. Gheorghiu has obviously given her portrayal of Manon a great deal of thought, and it shows in a performance of admirable dramatic nuance and beauty. The voice of the blushing Manon in Act I is quite different from that of the ravishing woman in Act III who asks whether the assembled admire her beauty ("“Suis-je gentille ainsi?"). Given the confidence and gusto with which Angela Gheorghiu delivers this line, the answer can only be the one provided by Manon's admirers: "Adorable! Divine! Divine!" Ms. Gheorghiu surmounts the vocal hurdles with aplomb. The voice is lovely throughout its range, and the top notes and coloratura are admirably secure. She is also a singer who is not afraid to sing in a quieter dynamic range, producing some of the most effective moments in this recording. Angela Gheorghiu's French diction is also quite fine, particularly important given the fact that in this opÈra-comique, Manon is required to both speak and sing text.

Roberto Alagna is also compelling as Manon's lover, Le Chevalier Des Grieux. I do find the lack of forward placement in Alagna's vocal production to be a drawback, particularly in French opera. On the other hand, the voice possesses a warm, attractive timbre. And Alanga certainly has an admirable grasp of French diction and style. His almost whispered, flowing account of Des Grieux's Act II "Dream" is particularly beguiling. Alagna is also capable of doing justice to the more heroic moments, such as the scene at St. Sulpice. Throughout the opera, Roberto Alagna presents a credible portrayal of a young man hopelessly in love. While I still prefer the even more stylish Nicolai Gedda in this role, Roberto Alagna provides a great deal of satisfaction.

Nearly ideal is the Lescaut of baritone Earle Patriarco. This is perhaps the most assured and stylish portrayal of this role that I have ever heard. Patriarco uses his lovely high baritone to great effect, phrasing with gusto, relishing every word of the text, and employing a remarkably wide dynamic range. Mr. Patriarco’s obvious joy of singing is evident throughout this performance. I look forward to hearing more of his artistry.

JosÈ van Dam is a patrician Comte des Grieux. While the upper register may not be as rich and secure as in the past, the beautiful timbre of the middle voice, the ravishing legato, and impeccable diction offer a master class in French bass-baritone singing. Tenor Gilles Ragon is also a delight as the rouÈ Guillot de Morfontaine.

Conductor Antonio Pappano leads a recording notable for its precision, energy and infectious enthusiasm. Indeed, this recording comes close to replicating the magic of an actual performance. This sense of joie de vivre extends all the way to the spoken dialogue, delivered with unusual relish by the singers.

The recorded sound is the best this opera has yet received. All in all, a first-rate effort, and a worthy addition to the Manon discography.

K.M. (Oct. 2000)