Sir Thomas Beecham once quipped,
I would give the whole of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos for Massenet’s Manon and would think that I had profited by the exchange
He was proabably only half serious, but I’ve always preferred Massenet’s setting of L’Abbé Prévost’s novel to Puccini’s. The Puccini tends to over-sentimentalise, where Massenet is much closer to the source material. Admittedly Massenet has Manon die before the couple sail to America, but in all other respects I’ve always felt that Massenet is much closer to the spirit of the original novel, and shows him in complete mastery of his craft, whereas Puccini’s opera is the work of a less experienced composer.
This classic 1955 recording has never really been bettered, and captures a style of performance practice you would never come across in today’s more international climate. Monteux, who conducted the work many times in the theatre, had the score in his bones as did his Opéra-Comique resources, and cast of French singers. The only non French singer is Manon herself, in the shape of Victoria De Los Angeles, who was nevertheless totally at home in French music, and well known the world over for her portrayal of Manon. She is unrivalled at conveying both the childlike innocence and worldly sensuality of the heroine, and she is here at her vocal best. Henri Legay might be considered a little too light of voice for Des Grieux, but he sings with elegance and style, and is totally convincing at suggesting the youth’s inexperience as well as his passion and obsession. The rest of the cast is as well nigh ideal as you could get, which leaves the small matter of the sound. EMI’s transfer is somewhat harsh and shrill, though it didn’t deter me from enjoying the set. It has also been reissued on Naxos and Testament, but I haven’t heard either of those, so can’t comment on whether they are any better.