Until we got to Act 4 I felt that this knocked spots off the Sinopoli/Te Kanawa version. It's still the best Manon I've seen or heard on DVD or CD, and the first one that makes a convincing claim for this opera to stand alongside Puccini's other top-flight works. For the first time in my experience Acts 1 and 2 are dramatically-convincing in themselves and as integral parts of the whole opera. Because, let's face it, there is a tendency for Manon to come across as four loosely-connected tableaux. Here, the work progresses organically. Acting is superb throughout. Pablo Elvira as Lescaut and Renato Capecchi as Geronte breathe abundant life into roles that can seem like afterthoughts in a run-of-the-mill performance. Philip Creech is new to me and his interplay with Domingo, Emondo to the latter's Des Grieux, is a delight. Here are two authentic young men horseplaying in a manner you'll immediately recognize if you can concede to being young yourself once. And then there's Scotto. She makes you believe totally in her rather complex character, unlike Te Kanawa, who is wooden in the Sinopoli version and seems to have trouble understanding, or believing in, her role. Scotto studied Manon in the original as well as in Puccini's libretto and acts her part from the inside out, giving it the three dimensions it generally lacks in most performances.
Act 3 itself is absolutely searing, Domingo tearing your heart out as he begs the Captain to be allowed to accompany Manon on board ship. When he and Scotto appear for their curtain calls at the end of the Act they are visibly drained, they have left everything on the stage. And maybe that's were the problem lies because there is a perceptible drop in emotional temperature in Act 4. It's as if those curtain calls broke their concentration and the spell they were weaving. Not that Act 4 is bad. It's just a slight anti-climax after what has gone before.
Singing matches the acting's high standard throughout but is marred by a technical issue. This is an early Met broadcast, the first via satellite. They obviously had something to learn about miking back then and there are frequent occasions when a voice fades, particularly when the singer turns sideways to the audience. With the male singers this is not such a problem, but Scotto did not always project well at the Met at the best of times, and you'll have to crank your centre speaker up to do her justice.
Levine's conducting is a pleasant surprise. I'm a big fan of Sinopoli in this opera, both on CD and DVD. But Levine matches him in all respects and his orchestra rises to the occasion. I like Menotti's production. It gives the opera a humanity, and particularly a sense of humour, that suits it. It may be hard to produce a dull Tosca or Boheme, but Manon struggles to lift itself off the stage in a poor production. This is the best I've seen.
Despite the reservations noted, I have to give this performance five stars. A little generously, I gave the Te Kanawa version four and this is far superior in almost every way, but especially as a dramatic experience. It may not be the perfect Manon, but I've yet to see or hear better.