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PUCCINI: Manon Lescaut

spacer Nitescu; Denniston, de Candia, Montarsolo; Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Gardiner. 
Production: Vick. Kultur BD 4203 (Blu-ray), 125 mins., subtitled

ManonLesBluRy

Auber was an old man, and Massenet middle-aged, when they wrote their Manons; but Puccini was thirty-four, and his score has a youthful sap and surge (not to mention a melodic bounty) that, despite the choppy libretto, make a good performance hard to resist. 

Here, from the Glyndebourne of 1997, is just such a performance, albeit with its own "despite": Graham Vick's miles-from-idiomatic production mixes heavy-handed stylization (Manon's Act II retinue) with overplayed realism (her fellow loose ladies in Act III) within the drab, dun, minimalist walls of Richard Hudson's overlit set — an array of chairs in Act I that reminds us right away that we're in Vick's postmodern Regie land, not Prévost's world, or Puccini's, or those of any of his five or six librettists. The look just doesn't match the music. 

Still, I must credit Vick for the fine performances of his principals, who may fall short in terms of vocal glamour but certainly know what makes these characters tick. Patrick Denniston, for example, can't compete with the sweetly juicy tone of Gigli, or with del Monaco's ringing top. He's American, and he can't be blamed for sounding it. But no one can deny this des Grieux's ardent eloquence: Denniston is a vivid, in-the-moment actor, and his commitment to the role — and to his gently piquant Manon — is impressive and moving. She is Adina Nitescu; don't expect the tonal refulgence of Tebaldi or Freni or the emotive abandon of Olivero (though you do get the look of the young de los Angeles): accept her lovely, lean, shimmeringly vibrant soprano and modest presence on their own terms, and you'll reap ample rewards. Her singing has a clarity, poise and musicality not often heard in the role — listen to her Act II levee, and you'll get a happy taste of these merits — and her expressive face comes into its heartbreaking own as Manon falls on hard, then harder, times. She's also the rare Manon who looks plausibly a teenager and, on top of that, a credible sibling to her stage brother, Roberto de Candia's playful, round-faced (if less round-toned) Lescaut. As Geronte, seventy-two-year-old Paolo Montarsolo is diminished of voice but not of presence; and there's fine work in small roles from two singers who went on to much bigger things — Antonello Palombi, as Edmondo, and Sarah Connolly, as the solo madrigalist in Act II. That charming latter vignette is deliciously handled by a conductor better experienced with madrigals than with Puccini — John Eliot Gardiner, making his Glyndebourne debut with this surprising vehicle and leading it very well indeed, with an overall delicacy of touch that doesn't preclude a real savoring of the big romantic moments. The original master tape has been "remastered in high definition," according to Kultur, but the aspect ratio is still 4:3; the sound is late-in-the-day monaural; and Kultur's presentation is its usual unadorned (i.e., stingy) self. Despite all that, this Manon Lescaut may leave you humming as you reach for a hankie. spacer

PATRICK DILLON

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3