Classics Today, June 22 2004
by Robert Levine
|his belongs in the pantheon of great opera recordings. In 1970 when the performance was taped, Beverly Sills had only sung the role that eventually hurt her voice–Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux–a handful of times, and so she was at the peak of her powers. The voice never was opulent or grand, but it was all the other things we hope for in a great vocal instrument: beautiful, expressive, agile, thoroughly even from very top (E-flats and Es) to bottom, with a flawless technique, extraordinary breath control, and a capability in any dynamic range, from the quietist pianissimo to an impressive forte. These traits, coupled with a lively, curious, intelligent mind and a commitment to drama, made her the finest dramatic coloratura of the late-’60s and very early ’70s (Caballé could be emotionally and vocally lazy; Sutherland’s interest in drama was ancillary).
There are other very good recordings of Manon on the market: Victoria de los Angeles is glorious, Gheorghiu and Alagna on EMI are excellent, and an odd, live performance on Myto, with Giacomo Aragall and Jeanette Pilou, is a wonderful surprise, full of passion. But this one is a desert-island set: Sills is girlish and demure at first, later alluring and sure of herself, then cajoling and outright lusty in the St. Sulpice Scene, and truly tragic at the end. Her coloratura is glittering, her “Adieu” heartrending. Nicolai Gedda is a very extroverted Des Grieux, singing with big, forward tone, but also (as usual) with great sensitivity and attention to dynamics. Gérard Souzay sounds a bit long-in-the-tooth for Lescaut, but he’s a very classy singer and he does get the character’s smarminess across. Gabriel Bacquier is a fine, authoritative Count, and the rest of the cast is superb. All sing in excellent French. Julius Rudel leads a more-than-complete score, with an additional aria for Manon in the Cours de la Reine scene that Massenet added for another soprano, and the orchestral playing is all you’d want it to be. The sound, once glaring, is now close to perfect. This is it.