Anna Pirozzi and Yusif Eyvazov were outstanding in Teatro Massimo’s concert performance of Manon Lescaut

ItalyItaly Puccini, Manon Lescaut (in concert form): Chorus (chorus master: Ciro Visco) and Orchestra of Teatro Massimo / Jader Bignamini (conductor). 21.10.2020 performance live-streamed (directed by Antonio Di Giovanni) from Teatro Massimo, Palermo. (JPr)

Teatro Massimo’s Manon Lescaut

Manon – Anna Pirozzi
Des Grieux – Yusif Eyvazov
Lescaut – Alessio Arduini
Geronte di Ravoir – Luca Dall’Amico
Edmondo – Matteo Mezzaro
Innkeeper / Dance Master / Lamplighter – Giuseppe Esposito
Singer – Adriana Di Paola
Sergeant of the Royal Archers – Antonio Barbagallo
Naval Captain – Cosimo Diano 

Palermo’s late-nineteenth century Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele apparently is the largest opera house in Italy. It is in a typical horseshoe shape with seven tiers of boxes which for this concert performance of Manon Lescaut were able to welcome a small audience only days before Italy temporarily shut everything back down again due to growing coronavirus cases. Everything had been done to socially distance both the chorus and orchestra, with the latter filling the stalls with the musicians at individual desks. The use of masks by those involved in putting Puccini’s opera on was entirely arbitrary and although the conductor Jader Bignamini had his on before and after stepping onto the podium, at the curtain call some singers wore a mask – one or two didn’t – whilst others just held one in their hands.

Premièred in 1893 Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s third opera and his first great international success. Abbé Prévost’s novel (L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut) about the lovelorn des Grieux and his fickle mistress had already inspired two French operas, Auber’s 1856 Manon Lescaut and Massenet’s 1884 Manon. Given that the latter was popular at the time – and it remains frequently performed today – Puccini’s publisher Giulio Ricordi, was not very keen to finance a new opera based on the same story. Puccini ignored the strongly held reservations he received and continued to produce a work entirely different from its predecessors.

Although it became Puccini’s break-through work it had a difficult gestation. It is still probably not entirely clear who is responsible for the text as five librettists were involved adapting a story based on Abbé Prévost’s original novel and these were: Ruggero Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Giuseppe Giacosa, Domenico Oliva, and Luigi Illica. The always difficult-to-please composer and his publisher Ricordi are also believed to have contributed to the libretto that probably was completed by Illica and Giacosa who went on to work with Puccini on his next three – and most successful – works, La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Regardless of whether Manon Lescaut’s heavily cut story has any dramatic coherence – because it leaps forward in time so often – at its première it was a sensation, thanks to its endless stretches of glorious music. It is Manon Lescaut’s music which a simple concert performance – such as this – best allows us to concentrate on and be indulged by.

The challenging title role needs a classic lirico-spinto soprano, a voice that has Italianate lyrical grace with power in reserve. This was supposed to be Angela Gheorghiu however she cancelled due to a quarantine period enforced by Switzerland having returned from appearing in Belgium. She was replaced by Anna Pirozzi who I have only once seen and heard – and been impressed by – in a Verona opera gala with Plácido Domingo (review click here).

Pirozzi is at the stage of her distinguished career when she may not wish to still be performing as Manon in a fully staged production. Indeed her voice was slow to warm up and she didn’t have the radiance necessary for her Act I romantic exchanges with des Grieux, nor did she entirely successfully represent a young girl yearning for love but destined for a convent. Very oddly Puccini does not show Manon and des Grieux in Paris, but we learn that Manon – despite all the passion she enjoyed with her equally young lover – could not cope with the poverty. However, Puccini has Manon now living a life of luxury as rich roué Geronte’s mistress in his luxurious Parisian apartment. There are some unexpected – from Puccini at least – musical longueurs here and the madrigal, minuet and gavotte stop the action. Nevertheless, it finds the two principal singers – Pirozzi and Yusif Eyvasov (des Grieux) at their very best for ‘Oh, sarò la più bella!’ (‘This love’s own magic spell’) a love duet that is the core of the second act and I believe, Puccini had Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in mind when he composed it. Angry at being betrayed Geronte summons soldiers to arrest Manon, who is caught trying to make a getaway with all her (ill-gotten?) jewellery.

As the concert went on Pirozzi confirmed my Verona impression that her soprano voice can cope with any amount of demandingly intense and penetrating singing. I believe she is also a consummate singer-actor though Pirozzi was kept behind her music stand for most of this concert and that limited her opportunities. I must admit I am great admirer of Yusif Eyvazov’s honest and forthright singing, and he seemed less encumbered by his music stand as he clearly knew his role and did not need the score in front of him. Eyvazov’s des Grieux throughout was ardent, fervently intense and he displayed limitless reserves of ringing power. His singing never seemed over-emotive and always served the character of someone whose life starts to unravel from the moment he sees Manon for the first time. Eyvazov’s masterly ‘Donna non vidi mai’ (‘I have never seen a woman’) – one of the greatest of Italian operatic arias – was the early highlight it should be because of the innate eloquence of the Azerbaijani tenor’s voice. Eyvazov and Pirozzi were  again at their finest in bringing deep emotion to the tragic final scene which is Puccini at his most overwrought. Pirozzi’s anguished beauty for her final aria ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’ (‘Alone, lost, abandoned’) made the opera’s denouement deeply affecting.

I was impressed by Alessio Arduini’s burnished and virile baritone as a splendidly sung Lescaut who flipflops between pimping his sister to Geronte or later helping her reunite with des Grieux when he realises how much in love she is with him. Luca Dall’Amico sang Geronte, Manon’s spurned and vengeful benefactor. His characterisation was threatening in many ways but vocally he was not at the level of his colleagues. Sometimes performances of the smallest roles can make impressions as striking as the leading ones. This is especially true during concert performances when we realise how significant they are vocally and dramatically to an opera. There were three ear-catching vignettes from Giuseppe Esposito as the Innkeeper in Act I, a conceited Dance Master in Act II and briefly as a Lamplighter in Act III; with these he showed that there are no small parts, only small singers.

Catch this Manon Lescaut if you still can and do not be put off that it was just a concert, as overall there were the highest possible musical standards from the soloists, and Teatro Massimo’s chorus and orchestra. Based on the evidence of this live stream Jader Bignamini seemed to be a singers’ conductor and appeared sensitive to their needs and never drowned them. Puccini’s richly-coloured score soared without any of the tear-jerking melodies ever descending into bathos: the Intermezzo which introduced Act III was particularly exquisitely played.

Jim Pritchard

For more about Teatro Massimo click here.

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