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