anon is a stereotype: the beautiful woman who realizes pretty early in the game that a great many otherwise healthy males are rendered helpless by her charms, and who determines to take full advantage of the situation.
Des Grieux is this woman’s victim. He finds this bitch-goddess so fascinating and irresistible that he lets her destroy his whole life. He alienates his father, violates his own conscience, and even feels he has offended his God for her. For example, he takes up gambling, which he considers reprehensible. What could make him act so out of character? All she had to do was bat her eyelashes at him and hint that if he wants her love she wants more money.
Naturally this can only end in tragedy. No one is happy. This, my friends, is Romantic Love.Poets sing its praises. In the Romantic Age it was thought a wonderful thing. In our more realistic world it looks more like a particularly virulent form of insanity. Mind you, she is not sick. She is a good argument for the “natural superiority of women” (in the Darwinian sense). She can twist man after man around her little finger and remain clearheaded and completely in control. De Grieux and his sort (opera offers dozens of examples) turn to jelly at her slightest pout. The disease is not unknown today–most of us have friends who lose all character and conviction in the presence of a gorgeous woman–but men are no longer expected to be that way and neither are women. Liberated people, thank God, don’t play this deadly game. Romantic love today is largely confined to people who are led by TV soap operas and Hollywood.
But the romantics wrote gorgeous music. For the music I will sit thru Manon again and again–I who would not be caught dead in front of a television set! At its worst it is frivolous, but at its best it is passionate: French froth and real human emotion (however misguided) in about equal doses. She is unbearable and he is an idiot, but Massenet has given them music that mitigates their character defects. When someone like Beverly Sills sings Manon, I am almost taken in like Des Grieux.
Manon has done well on records: De los Angeles, Legay, Monteux in 1955; Cotrubas, Kraus, Plasson in 1982; Gheorghiu, Alagna, Pappano in 1999. All these were originally issued by EMI. Sills’s Manon, made for ABC in 1970, was first reissued on CD by EMI, and now we have it again from DG. It remains my (and the Editor’s) favorite recording of the opera, though next to the others mentioned, it falls short in some departments. Monteux, Plasson, and Pappano lead French choruses and orchestras, and it makes a difference. ABC’s original sound was cavernous, the orchestra thunderous, and the voices slightly too far away and sometimes harshly glaring. The DG engineers haven’t ameliorated the problems much, but the ear adjusts. Monteux and Plasson had stylish singers in the smaller roles, and each fielded a fine pair of baritones. Rudel has Souzay (past his prime) as Lescaut and a strong Comte des Grieux in Bacquier, but they don’t surpass Michel Dens and Jean Borthayre with Monteux, or Gino Quilico and Jose van Dam with Plasson. (Van Dam repeated the role for Pappano.)
The lead tenors are also an admirable lot. Henri Legay, for Monteux, is elegant and feather-light. Kraus (Plasson) has ringing top notes and precise control, though he’s perhaps too unvaried in tone and his French is poor. Alagna (Pappano) is ardent but sloppy. Gedda was still near his best in 1970, and he finds the right balance between Gallic elegance and full-throated vocalism. The voice retains its solid core over a wide dynamic range (just listen to the two arias), his French is excellent, and he’s both the passionate lover and the sophisticated aristocrat.
But Manon depends more on the soprano than anyone else, and much as I admire her rivals, Sills remains my first choice. She sings the role better than her rivals. The music demands a lyric soprano who is also a full-fledged coloratura, and no one tosses off the trills, runs, and high notes better than Sills or integrates them more naturally into the line. Her voice sounds gorgeous here: soft, warm, floaty, and persuasively girlish. As an actress, she surpasses De los Angeles and Cotrubas because she’s not afraid to sound sexy, to put real sensuousness and honest emotion into her voice. Manon is a flighty, selfish character; De los Angeles, Cotrubas, and even Gheorghiu are prim, genteel ladies. I savor the many delicate touches they bring to the music, but I get no whiff of the femme fatale who makes the story believable rather than ridiculous. Sills’s Manon is the most vivid and plausibly sincere. She lives fully and unmaliciously in the moment, and she is lovable despite her fickleness.
All the Manon conductors are good, but I particularly revere Monteux, who combines dramatic fervor with his own unique feel for orchestral color. Rudel knows his way around the score just as well, and he does justice to all its shifts in atmosphere. DG’s booklet has brief notes along with text and translation. Manon’s ‘Fabliau’, written as an alternative to the Gavotte, is included in an appendix (as it was the first time round on ABC). Sills tosses it off brilliantly.