Massenet’s Manon was first performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1884. It rapidly became a staple of the operatic repertory and has remained so to this day. I’m ignoring the shuttered state of everything public at present. The opera has two big roles. The title character and her hormone addled lover the Chevalier Des Grieux.
At the end of the second act the tenor sings of the life he wishes for, but can’t afford. The aria is typically referred to as Le Rêve (the dream). After singing it Manon allows her lover to be kidnapped so she can find a replacement who has the cash to satisfy her teenage desires.
This aria requires sweetness of tone and melting pianissimi to realize its full worth. At the end of this article are the French lyrics and an English translation. Some of the performances here are in German or Italian as well as the original French.
I’ll start with the recording made by Enrico Caruso in 1902. This was the first year of his recording career and a year prior to his Met debut. At this stage, his voice was still a lyric tenor rather than the trumpet it became later on. His tone is also a little unsteady which may be due to the unusual recording setting (a hotel room) and his youth. An interesting document, even if it’s far from the ideal reading of the delicate aria. Caruso Le Rêve (in Italian)
Edmond Clément (1867, Paris – 1928) was a French lyric tenor known for the artistry and delicacy of his singing. Des Grieux was one of the roles which defined his work. His interpretation is likely exactly as Massenet intended it to be. Clément La Rêve (1911)
Tito Schipa was the leading Italian lyric tenor of the first part of the 20th century. He sings the aria in Italian, but also sings it the way an Italian tenor would. The mannerisms and style of all the Italian tenors who sing the role are different from those of their French counterparts. This difference is one of style rather than substance, Italians sing French music in a way that reflects a different ethos. I intend no value judgement to this difference. Schipa La Rêve
Des Grieux was regularly performed by Beniamino Gigli. His famous head tone is displayed to great effect. He sings the aria in Italian. It’s from a staged performance in 1938. Gigli La Rêve
Cesare Valletti was a student of Schipa. Des Grieux was a regular role. He sang the opera at many of the world’s great houses, including the Met. He was in the cast of the 1954 Met broadcast. This recording is from a recital. As was true of everything he sang, his interpretation is suffused with artistry and elegance. Valletti La Rêve
Giuseppe Di Stefano made both his operatic and La Scala debuts in Manon. This recording is from the 1951 broadcast of the opera at the Met. Licia Albanese is briefly heard as Manon. The 29 year old tenor displays both the beauty of his voice and his unique piano singing. He said that no one taught him how to sing this way, rather he just found that he could do it. I suspect this kind of singing is natural for some rare few and cannot be taught. Di Stefano La Rêve
Jussi Björling gives an impeccable performance of the aria. His distinctive and beautiful voice is immediately recognizable from the first note. Björling La Rêve
Nicolai Gedda was the other great Swedish tenor of the last century. He was particularly effective in French opera as the recording clearly demonstrates. Gedda La Rêve
Leopold Simoneau (1916-2006) was a French-Canadian tenor who has a major world wide career specializing in Mozart and the lyric French repertory. He only sang five times at the Met, all as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. His version seems to me to be the most “authentic” of all those presented here. Simoneau Le Rêve
Fritz Wunderlich was the great German lyric tenor of the 20th century. He died from a fall at age 36 just before he was to make his Met debut. He sings the aria in German. His singing was always flawless, but I think in this case it doesn’t quite reach the delicacy that Simoneau offers. Wunderlich Le Rêve
Luciano Pavarotti sang Des Grieux at La Scala in 1969. The Manon is Mirella Freni. The voice is fresh and free of the mannerisms attached to his latter work. A fine performance. Pavarotti Le Rêve
There are several recordings of this aria by Jonas Kaufmann. I chose one from 1993 when he was still a student. It’s sung in German to a piano accompaniment. His famous “wooly” tone is not yet present. It makes a listener wonder what his voice might have become if he had taken it in a different direction. Kaufmann La Rêve
Rolando Villazon sang Des Grieux in May 2007 just days before his voice suddenly collapsed, never to return to the glorious state it was in prior to disaster. If you listen carefully, or perhaps just with hindsight, you can hear a hint of a problem to come. Anna Netrebko is briefly heard as Manon. Villazon Le Rêve
Vittorio Grigolo is an uneven singer who oftens substitutes enthusiasm for artistry. His recording of this aria is subdued and effective. Grigolo Le Rěve
Juan Diego Flórez recently sang the aria in a recital. This music is outside his usual fach, but he gives a fine performance. Flórez Le Rêve
Finally, Benjamin Bernheim. The French tenor has been making a wonderful impression in French and Italian lyric parts. He has sung in Chicago, but has yet to appear at the Met. If opera companies ever recover their nerve, Bernheim is a tenor to savor. Bernheim Le Rêve
En fermant les yeux, je vois là-bas une humble retraite,
une maisonnette toute blanche au fond des bois!
Sous ses tranquilles ombrages,
les clairs et joyeux ruisseaux,
où se mirent les feuillages,
chantent avec les oiseaux!
C’est le Paradis!
Oh! non! Tout est là triste et morose,
car il y manque une chose:
il y faut encor Manon!
C’est un rêve, une folie!
Non! là sera notre vie,
si tu le veux, ô Manon!
When I close my eyes I see far away a modest retreat,
a little cottage lost in the middle of the woods!
Under the quiet shade,
the clear and joyous streams,
in which the leaves are reflected,
sing with the birds!
Oh no, everything there is sad and melancholy,
because one thing is missing:
Manon ought to be present!
That’s only a dream, a folly!
No, our life will be there,
if you want it, oh Manon!