Manon Lescaut was Giacomo Puccini’s first big international success. His publisher, Giulio Ricordi, tried to put him off the project by citing Jules Massenet’s very successful adaptation just nine years previously. Puccini was intent on making the story his own, insisting, “A woman like Manon can have more than one lover… I shall feel it like an Italian, with desperate passion.” Desperation is certainly the feeling this reviewer got from a new recording of Manon Lescaut from our friends at Decca Classics, but I’m also quite certain it’s not the same type that the Maestro had for his subject.

The raison d’être for this addition to the catalogue is most certainly Decca’s need to top their coffers by furthering the Quixotic vision that recording artist Andrea Bocelli has of himself as an opera singer. Ever since his 1996 duet with Sarah Brightman,”Time to say goodbye / Con te partiro” he’s sold umpty-bazillion units of CDs and performed with everyone from Tony Bennett  to Mary J. Blige. The hyperbole surrounding this man is, literally, unbelievable. His singing touches so many people and resonates with them so deeply. Oprah WInfrey says she ”bursts into tears” when she hears him sing which, frankly, is exactly what I want to do, just not for the same reason.

I confess to having purchased his first studio recording of La Boheme back in 2000 (used) led by Zubin Mehta with Barbara Frittoli as Mimi. It revealed a pleasant, natural voice with warmth and range but inadequate breath support and a wildly uneven tone quality. Fifteen years on, and having made nine more opera recordings with casts and conductors of the highest professional standards, he remains an amateur. His vocal quality now diminished by the effects of age on an instrument that’s never been properly trained, despite claims of serious study. He may be able to get away with popular music with a microphone and amplification in concert and in the recording studio, but his continued pursuit of singing opera reveal him to have challenges with his hearing as well as his vision.

The problem is that there are other artists involved here with, one can only assume, a modicum of integrity. Beginning with the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana and the Coro de la Generalitat Valenciana under the baton of Placido Domingo. These ensembles have been featured on a number of cd’s and dvd’s since their opulent venue in Valencia, Spain, the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, opened a decade ago. Though perhaps not up to the expertise of their colleagues in Vienna or London, they still offer spirited, if at times careful, playing. String tone is very good with timpani and percussion kept very busy, as always, by this composer. However, there are stretches when articulation is sacrificed for the sake of speed.

It is a great gift to have a conductor on the podium who understands how to follow singers. Some would even say that it is an art unto itself. The dilemma is that there are moments without the singers, especially the great Intermezzo between Act II and III, where Mr. Domingo’s leadership turns listless and plodding. The constant shifts of tone and tempo, in what could be called an uneven early work of Puccini’s, prove problematic at times. This is especially evident in the first act, where you can hear Domingo carefully setting up some of those shifts with the chorus and orchestra instead of letting them come as a surprise to the listener.

The recording benefits from very strong secondary casting from the performing arts school that bears Maestro Domingo’s name also at the Palau.  Six of the singers in the lineup are in training there and they make an excellent contribution and bode well for the future.

As well, the  pungent if slightly wooly, Lescaut of Javier Arrey joins a very vivid and theatrical Geronte performed by Maurizio Muraro to enliven the proceedings immeasurably. I should also mention the virile Edmondo of Matthew Peña who also seems a harbinger of good things to come.

Our heroine is Ana Maria Martinez and the Puerto Rican soprano is a paragon of vocal virtues here.  She has a dusky timbre which belies her youth but she’s supple and secure making the vocal and dramatic journey from timid maiden to abandoned strumpet a pleasure to listen to.  Her breath control is old-timey, show off, opera singer like you’d expect from a vintage 1950’s diva. Her vocal production is a near string of pearls on the breath while her Italian betrays a slight Spanish accent around the “s” (which I enjoy) plus she tends to roll her “r’s” to excess.  Her “In quelle trine morbide” in Act II is a thoughtful reading displaying a slightly wiry top (think young Scotto).

She has a luscious little trill in the dance lesson, displays enviable dynamic control throughout her range  and is fierce and imposing during her abandonment in Louisiana. Sadly,the Decca engineers seem to be backing off her top in the climaxes. I’ve heard her live and it’s a full lyric voice and she can go boom and dominate an ensemble when need be. I didn’t get to enjoy that pleasure anywhere here however. Perhaps they don’t want to embarrass others.

And so we come to Mr. Bocelli. He is miked much closer than the rest of the cast and the imbalance is always apparent. His tone is strangulated and effortful as the vocal line rises up the staff and he’s a veritable explosion on top. It sadly makes the step ladder-style writing of the Act I duet particularly fatiguing for the listener. At least Ms. Martinez tends to cover the worst of his sounds with hers in the duets but it’s still pretty grim.  He barks his cries of “Taci!” during the Act II duet and veers so wildly off pitch on some of the lower phrases one can only assume that these were the best takes available.

Mr. Bocelli bursts out in sobs before the climactic phrases of his plea at the pier and at that point in his performance it does seem a desperate act, although not the type he intended. A few tracks later at “Manon, senti, amor mio” the clouds clear away and his voice falls into placement and for a few minutes you can actually hear what he’s capable of but it’s over much too fast.

There’s another marked (or marketing) perversion here and that’s that this is the only recording of Manon Lescaut I’ve ever seen where the tenor gets top billing over the soprano and the font his name is printed in is exactly twice the size of both his leading lady and the conductor. An Amazon search reveals a similar cover design on his latest operatic releases as well as the stupefying discovery that he’s recorded Andrea Chenier with Violeta Urmana as Maddalena(!). I’m assuming she sang her role stationed in an outer hall of the recording studio or, perhaps, an adjacent county?

You’d have to be such a hardcore Martinez fan (guilty), or crazed hoarder/completist (maybe), to derive any pleasure from this recording.  Anyone wanting to enjoy the soprano’s art need look no further than the private Glyndebourne recording released of her Rusalka or her recital disc on Naxos. I can’t help thinking that it’s almost sad that Decca is willing to keep up this facade in order to make a nickel. Or a billion of them as the case may be. Then again as the punk rock guitarist Billy Zoom said,”It’s only selling out if you get a bunch of money.”