Puccini struggled especially hard with the birth of Manon Lescaut, his first triumph and, for all its flaws, his first real masterpiece. There's no question that the compassion he felt for the confused and ultimately doomed heroine of Abbé Prévost's 18th-century novel generated the kind of intensity he brought to Mimi or Tosca.
This live performance from June 1998 at La Scala is clearly banking on the star power of José Cura, who indeed makes his memorable mark on des Grieux. It's exactly the kind of role to absorb Cura's drawbacks (his moments of insecurity and odd phrasings) and let his strengths shine, and Cura uses his wonderfully dark, ardent tenor to embody des Grieux in all his helpless passion. As the title heroine, Maria Guleghina can be exasperatingly supercharged one moment, beguiling the next. She's not all that convincing as the character's frantic mood shifts, but is emotionally gripping in her bleak final monologue. Riccardo Muti is less uptight than usual in the pit and throws welcome light on the score's notable symphonic depth, bringing a sense of coherency to Puccini's not-quite-perfected vision. Some moments of frazzled string ensemble aside, the band plays beautifully. --Thomas May
Aficionados are familiar with Puccini's Il Trittico or "Triptych," his three one-act operas that premiered at New York's Metropolitan in 1918; everyday opera lovers should know them as well. Here is Puccini at his most imaginative: Il Tabarro, a shocker about the jealousy of an older man towards his deceitful younger wife on a houseboat on the Seine is dark and foreboding, and is, incidentally, probably his greatest, tightest opera. It is given a superb performance here, with Maria Guleghina and the wonderful Neil Shicoff (the true, underrecorded fourth tenor) as the faithless duo and Carlo Guelfi as the pitiable but murdering husband. Suor Angelica is set in a convent (yes, only women's voices). Until the goings turn tragic--the eponymous heroine is told by her cruel aunt that the child she had out of wedlock and gave up has died--the scoring is light, airy, and pure. Cristina Gallardo-Domas and Bernadette Manca di Nissa as the nun and her aunt, respectively, may not have the vocal glamour or depth of some of their predecessors on CD (Renata Scotto or Christa Ludwig), but their beautiful, meaningful singing carries the show. Gianni Schicchi's soundstage (the bedroom of a recently dead rich man in Florence in 1299, peopled by his greedy relatives) is rambunctious for the composer's only foray into comedy--based on a passage from Dante--and this set comes up roses. It's the best one on records. Jose Van Dam actually is funny and Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna (who also offer a cameo in Tabarro) are super as the young lovers; Gheorghiu's singing of the opera's hit, "O mio babbino caro," is glorious. This set is highly recommended. --Robert Levine