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Recorded 1954 – 2 CDs – 119 minutes (inc bonus tracks)

Rome Opera House – cond Jonel Perlea

Manon Lescaut – Licia Albanese

Des Grieux – Jussi Bjorling

Lescaut – Robert Merrill

Geronte di Ravoir / Sergeant of Archers/ – Franco Calabrese

Edmundo / Dancing Master – Mario Carlin

Innkeeper / Ship's Captain – Enrico Campi

Madrigal Singer – Anne Marie Rota


In the summer of 1954 RCA despatched a team to Rome with the object of recording Manon Lescaut . This move was the dictated by the need to cut expense by recording abroad and utilised the Rome Opera House out of season. The Swedish tenor, Jussi Bjorling, was engaged for the role of Des Grieux along with his Metropolitan colleagues Licia Albanese and Robert Merrill. The Rumanian conductor, Jonel Perles, made one of his rare appearances – his career was cruelly truncated by health problems.


The recording sessions went smoothly with a relaxed atmosphere, culminating in an impromptu concert at the Grand Hotel when Bjorling and his American colleagues sang Sicillian ballads to the delight of the guests and waiters. The finished records became one of the tenor's favourite sets, and the Naxos CD transfer now released shows exactly why.


Puccini had stated that his feelings towards this score were tinged “con passione disperata” – with a desperate passion and this recording never looses sight of that disposition. From his first appearance among the high spirited students, Bjorling's unmistakeable voice lets you know that you are in the presence of a great singer. He also displays a dramatic involvement which was not always apparent in his commercial recordings.


His Manon is Licia Albanese, a regular performer at the Metropolitan Opera, whose voice is not immediately attractive. Her emotional involvement is such however that the listener becomes accustomed to its distinctive tones. She matches Bjorling in the passion she injects into her singing, while the velvety sound of Merrill's smooth baritone almost makes Lescaut into a likeable character.


Credit is also due to the conducting of Perlea, who supports his singers unobtrusively and ensures that the tension does not flag, thus avoiding any suggestion of anti-c lima x in the final act. The chorus and orchestra remain always under his control, in contrast to the “live” recording of 1949 (also on Naxos Historical 8.110123-24) where the conductor is several bars ahead of the players and the singers are left gasping for breath.


The recent Radio 3 survey of this opera came to the conclusion that the Perlea set was the top recommendation, in spite of its age. In fact, the sound is clear and only very occasionally betrays its pre-stereo origins. As a bonus, a recital of arias sung by Albanese follow after the end of the opera – she is otherwise poorly represented on CD although her recordings with Toscanini must soon return to the catalogue.


None of the current modern versions of Manon Lescaut offer much competition; perhaps the Serafin set with Callas and di Stefano comes nearest to this 1954 set. It was high time that it was reissued and is a belated to tribute to Bjorling and his all too brief career. Perlea too is an almost forgotten name in the world of opera – some radio performances way yet surface and would be worth seeking out.


It would not surprise me if this recording became a best seller, it is certainly well worth the modest outlay for two Naxos CDs – Recommended.


© S Jenkins