I have sworn to myself never to discuss a living singer on this blog, but I am making an exception this time. Renée Fleming, who is a world-renowned singer, sings Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. I am posting two other singers singing the same aria so that you can hear why Fleming should not have sung this aria nor, I would go so far as to say, many arias or roles that she has sung. In this particular case, her voice is simply not big enough for the aria. This aria requires at least a spinto soprano while Fleming was never more than a lyric, and not a large lyric at that. Pay attention to the pronunciation of the Italian; it is, for the most part not good. She tries to make up for her lack of sound with swoops, distortions of vowels, and theatrics. I will not speak of anything else that Fleming has done because I am afraid of the threats that I will receive! If I start to talk about living singers, I will chase everyone away from this blog.
Olivero was trained in the verismo school of singing, and Manon Lescaut is a verismo opera. The “over the top” element that you may hear is part of the style. She had the right sized voice for this aria, and she had a right to sing it. It is full of pathos, and plain good singing. There is a video of her singing this aria at 83, and she is better than most sopranos singing it today.
Finally, there is la Divina, who defies any kind of categorization except that she was a high dramatic soprano with coloratura and could sing anything that she wanted, and she, too had the right to sing this aria.
Manon Lescaut (Puccini)
Manon Lescaut is an opera in four acts by Giacomo Puccini, composed between 1890 and 1893. The story is based on the 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost. In 1884 an opera by Jules Massen entitled Manon, and based on the same novel, was premiered and has also become popular.
The libretto is in Italian, and was cobbled together by five librettists whom Puccini employed: Ruggero Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Giuseppe Giacosa, Domenico Oliva and Luigi Illica. The publisher, Giulio Ricordi, and the composer himself also contributed to the libretto. So confused was the authorship of the libretto that no one was credited on the title page of the original score. However, it was Illica and Giacosa who completed the libretto and went on to contribute the libretti to Puccini’s next three – and most successful – works, La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly.
A vast plain near the outskirts of the New Orleans territory
Having fled the jealous intrigues of New Orleans, the lovers (Manon Lescaut and des Grieux – this is such a complicated opera that I can’t begin to try to describe the plot; suffice it to say that Manon has been exiled from France to the deserts [that is right, the deserts] of New Orleans) – make their way across a desert to seek refuge in a British settlement. Wandering in the desert, the ailing Manon is exhausted. She falls and cannot go any farther.
Des Grieux is alarmed by Manon’s appearance and goes to look for water. While he is gone, Manon recalls her past and muses about her fatal beauty and her fate (Manon: Sola, perduta, abbandonata).
Des Grieux returns, having been unable to find water. Manon bids him a heart-rending farewell, however not before complaining about how her life has not been fair and that she is no longer beautiful. Before dying in his arms Manon asks des Grieux to tell her how beautiful she used to be, and how he must forgive her wrongdoings and faults before she dies, not listening to him repeat how much he loves her and will miss her. Overcome by grief at the death of his vain and selfish lover, des Grieux collapses across her body.