Musicologists and analysts are fond of raking Puccini, especially early Puccini, over the coals - about his lack of consistency, his vacillations over plot, libretto and musical setting, his long periods of indecision in picking subjects.
Undoubtedly he would have been one of the most aggravating men to work with, both musically and personally. He composed only 12 operas (essentially his entire life's output) over a period of 42 years, and three of those are one-act operas that comprise a trittico. He was a man possessed by an obsession for "getting it just right." His indecisiveness became more and more torturesome to him as he grew older, and those around him were forced to suffer with him.
"Manon Lescaut" (1893), his first successful opera and the first that really endures in repertory today, has come in for especially heavy flak over the years. Much fault is found with its structure, its helter-skelter of styles, its big jumps of plot.
Yet in "Manon" we find the first of those scenes in a series, so typically Puccini, that can become indelibly emblazoned on the memory. In "La Boheme" and "Madama Butterfly" he employed the same technique - picking a few poignant moments that somehow tell the whole story, though there are big gaps in time on either side. Somehow you miss no essential element of the touching stories, nor does the nature of any important character fail to be developed. "Manon Lescaut" is remarkably persuasive music, filled with moving arias - a good supplement to the Puccini big three.
As the all-too-corruptible heroine drawn from Provost's novel, Kiri Te Kanawa turns in one of her most expressive performances ever. She is singing at the top of her form, and her voice suits this part to perfection, the top notes soaring in unlimited beauty. Carreras must have recorded this Des Grieux shortly before he fell ill, but one finds no deficiency in his sensitive portrayal of a role that also fits ideally the weight and timbre of his voice, somewhere between lyric and dramatic - a lyric spinto among tenors. Their love duets are stirringly realized, as are their solo passages.
Actually, in recording, this opera is largely a dialog between the two. In a visual production the other characters come and go with more impact, but none is of more than secondary importance, though the role of Lescaut is handled by a little-known baritone of promise, Paolo Coni. One welcomes also the memorable input of Italo Tajo as the elderly Geronte; Tajo loses with age none of his ability to characterize vocally.
Chailly adds to his laurels, drawing a beautiful and passionate portrayal from the singers and orchestra. Chailly has the ability to impart a magical sparkle without distortion.
My touchstone recording of this opera is RCA's with Licia Albanese and Jussi Bjoerling - alas, long gone from circulation and limited by the inferior recording techniques of its time. Among those currently in the catalog, Deutsche Grammophon's recent offering by Mirella Freni and Placido Domingo with Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting makes an interesting comparison.
Sinopoli is fond of more sentiment, lingering, then hastening ahead more liberally than Chailly, though with no more passionate effect. Freni is mistress of Puccini's Manon, one of a treasury of fine roles one prizes from this incomparable artist; but Domingo's full-throated and undeniably mature tenor does not always complement the youthful impetuosity of Des Grieux.