Callas in Manon Lescaut

Maria Callas recorded Puccini’s Manon Lescaut in July 1957, though she did not approve the set for release until 1959, apparently because of concerns about her vocal form. Manon Lescaut is one of four rôles—along with Carmen, Mimì in La bohème, and Nedda in I pagliacci—that Callas recorded but never undertook on stage.

Years later, Callas wrote to her friend Cristina Gastel Chiarelli that she had been “irremediably tired” from the time of her La Scala Anna Bolena, which premiered in April 1957.

The first decade of Callas’s Italian career, which totalled only fifteen years, from 1947 to 1962, had proceeded at a scorching pace. It brought her triumphs, wealth, and also the crushing weight of celebrity.

A month after recording Manon Lescaut, Callas was caught up in the “scandal” of her withdrawal from a performance of La sonnambula in Edinburgh that she may or may not have agreed to give. Shortly thereafter she was dismissed by the San Francisco Opera upon asking to postpone performances on medical grounds. January 1958 brought the Rome Norma “walkout,” a situation in which Callas was blameless but savaged by the gutter press (in Italy, the press tout court). Later that year, she broke with both the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala.

Though “irremediably tired,” Callas managed to give some of her greatest performances in 1957, including Bolena and the Cologne Sonnambula. The Act I duet from Manon Lescaut presents no great vocal challenges (in contrast to the Act IV aria), and Callas fills Puccini’s music with grace, sensuality, and the dewy glow of youth. The recorded sound, alas, is harsh, and Giuseppe di Stefano bellows, but we would be poorer without this Manon Lescaut.

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