The 1983 Royal Opera house production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut is probably a pretty good representation of what that annoying person at your local opera company’s season launch means when they ask why they can’t have productions the way they used to be. Except it’s a rather exceptionally good example of what s/he means.
The production is by Götz Friedrich with set and costume designs by Günther Schneider-Siemssen and Aliute Meczies. The first three acts look as if a not particularly good 18th century genre painting has come to life. Act 4 looks like something out of Dune. Every stage direction is followed literally and their is nothing to disturb or excite the imagination. It’s very pretty and provides an eye candy backdrop for some fine singing.
The cast is stellar. Placido Domingo sings Des Grieux with Kiri Te Kanawa as Manon and Tom Allen as her brother/pimp. Forbes Robinson is Geronte di Ravoir. They are all very good though Placido steals the show. This must have been just about his peak as a romantic tenor and he is beautiful and exciting to listen to. In the first two acts Kiri tends to do that thing where she generates a beautiful sound without much expression or emotion. She comes to life though whenever Placido is on stage and in Acts 3 and 4 she really acts rather better than I thought she could. Who can not be moved by the last two acts of this piece anyway? Allen and Robinson act and sing very well and make good foils for the lovers.
Giuseppe Sinopoli is in the pit. To me, the orchestra sounds a bit too refined and civilized for Puccini but part of that I think is the recording. In any event the orchestra doesn’t get in the way.
Technically this recording shows its age. The 4:3 picture is very soft grained and maybe a little washed out. The Dolby 2.0 sound track is barely adequate. The soloists are balanced a long way forward and both orchestra and chorus sound rather thin. In the circumstances it’s hard to fault Humphrey Burton’s video direction. Close ups are inevitable given the period and the relatively poor picture resolution.
The disk package is basic in the extreme. Documentation is limited to a chapter listing. There’s not even a cast sheet. There are no extras. Subtitle options are English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Japanese.
Despite showing its age rather badly this recording is a useful record of two very fine singers in their primes.