Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Manon (an opera in 5 Acts) (1882-84)

Manon Lescaut - Germaine Féraldy (sop)
Le Comte Des Grieux - Louis Guénot (bass-baritone)
Le Chevalier Des Grieux - Josef Rogatchewsky (tenor)
Lescaut - Georges Villier (baritone)
Pousette - Andrée Vavon (sop)
Javotte - Jeanne Rambert/Mme Ravery (side 31) (sop)
Rosette - Andrée Bernadet/Marguerite Julliot (sides 29, 32) (sop)
Rosette - Marinette Fenoyer (side 33) (sop)
Guillot - Emile de Creus (tenor)
De Brétigny - Jean Vieuille/André Gaudin (sides 17, 20, 21) (baritone)
LíHôtelier - Paul Payan
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra-Comique, Paris/Elie Cohen
Recorded on 36 sides by French Columbia, December 1928-March 1929
Matrices: WLX 655, 656, 661, 676-80, 683-87, 689-93, 723-31, 740, 741, 823, 824, 827-29, 835, 836
Catalogue: D 15156-73 Mono ADD
Naxos Great Opera Recordings
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110203-04 [2CDs: 76.08+65.25]


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That arch-Francophile, Sir Thomas Beecham, was said to have remarked "I would give up all the Brandenburgs for Manon and would think that I had profited by the exchange". Listening to this recording, I donít hesitate to sympathise with Sir Thomasís sentiments.

I owned a mediocre modern recording of Manon some years ago and cannot claim it ever made a great impression upon me, vying as it did at the time with what I considered more `worthyí operatic recordings. Indeed, had I seen this vintage recording on the shelf in my favourite classical record department, I would have passed it by without as much as a second glance. Yet, I have listened to this set which dates, incredibly, from 1928-29 with undiluted pleasure and discovered, in the process, a lost sound-world and an authentic Gallic flavour only a recording from this period can still embody.

Premièred at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 19th January 1884, Massenetís opera was a setting of Prévostís celebrated romantic tale of the adventures of courtesan, Manon, set in the cathedral town of Amiens, Paris and Le Havre in 1721. Auber had preceded Massenet in setting the tale to music, but his version is now rarely heard. Puccini produced his own opera Manon Lescaut based on the same work about a decade later, and both operas share an affectionate place in the hearts of many opera lovers.

To my modern ears, the spirit of the piece seems remarkably fresh and I think this may be due to what was a ground-breaking approach by the composer at the time. He experimented with the use of spoken dialogue over linking orchestral passages. This is a very naturally achieved effect and it never sounds Ďstageyí or unrealistic, as the singers adopt a conversational tone which keeps the whole work moving along at a convincing pace.

The orchestral forces here, under the agile guidance of Elie Cohen, bring great beauty to the work and are a world away from some third-rate house orchestra. Massenetís works were obviously in their bloodstream (is it too much to imagine that some may have played in the première?) and this makes itself plain. They play with a real affection for the piece and the piquancy of their playing adds a splendid - and typically French - dimension to this beguiling opera. It is nice to hear the reedy Gallic wind section (they put me very much in mind of Walter Leggeís stylish Philharmonia sound from the early 1950s) and revel in an authentically French sound world which has very much disappeared in the post war years, with the arrival of jet-set, chromium-plated, international conductors and a homogeneous sound which has all but expunged national orchestral characteristics. The traditional cuts are here naturally, but these can be excused a little when you listen to sections such as the ballet music in the first scene of Act III, played with such exuberance and sheer joie de vivre.

Vocal characterisation in this set is sharply drawn, though the characters never seem to be anything other than genuinely credible. It helps, of course, that the cast is entirely French, save the tenor role of the chevalier Des Grieux, which is sung by Ukrainian-born Joseph Rogatchewsky. Importantly the arias and duets, which in other interpretations are apt to have been given an undue Ďstand aloneí prominence, are treated in the same intimate manner as the rest of the work and this pays benefits in never seeming to hold-up the flow of the action. I think the small-scale, indeed domestic, nature of these pieces (try the beginning of Act II, disc 1, track 11) is retained by singers and conductor alike and are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the complete work.

Germaine Féraldy tackles the role of Manon with great verve. She has a true sweetness of tone and is thankfully free of the type of vocal mannerisms which make one tire of some recordings on repeated hearing. She and the conductor are always in perfect harmony and her phrases are never gabbled or indistinct. She adroitly captures the mixture of guilelessness and self-indulgence which make her character so intriguing and, I was pleased to note, perfectly judges her approach to the set-piece arias such as Adieu, notre petit table in Act II which, in lesser hands, can become over-sentimentalised and schmaltzy. Manonís plangency here, as she bids farewell to the pathetic supper table at which she and lover Des Grieux have spent happy hours, in favour of promised riches with the wealthy De Brétigny, is beautifully pitched, the words elegantly pointed. True to Massenetís intentions the text and music get equal billing. Earlier, in the famous Letter Duet, her voice blends superbly with that of Ukrainian-born Rogatchewsky to produce a memorable scene.

Féraldy is a bright, flexible lyric soprano and can convey wide-eyed innocence and a knowing worldliness (the two, conflicting halves of her fascinating character) with equal conviction. In terms of technique, she hurls herself into her exuberant arias with abandon, effortlessly reaching and holding her high notes with nonchalance. Her coloratura passages in the florid Voici les élégantes in Act III, scene 1 (disc 1, track 18) are despatched with great vocal dexterity and her clear phrasing and exquisitely held notes in Je Marche are a real treat. If you listen to no other track from this set, be sure to sample the intoxicating Obéssons quand leur voix appelle (the famous gavotte from the same scene) to hear Madame Féraldy, orchestra and conductor at their bewitching best.

Rogatchewsky is a fine Des Grieux and his voice, to my ears, betrays no hint of his Slavonic roots. He strives for, and achieves, credible poignancy where it is called for - En fermant les yeux, for example, where he ponders on the idyllic life he and Manon are to share in the future - a sense of longing all the more heartrending as it is set against what we now know of Manonís duplicitous intentions.

The rest of the cast, including an authoritative Comte Des Grieux sung convincingly by Louis Guénot, a doyen of the Opéra-Comique, are well picked and contribute fully to a very satisfying production. Due to the four month span of the original recording, some of the lesser rôles have multiple singers depending on their availability at the time. Though not ideal, I didnít feel this detracted from the recording in a significant way.

Before summing up, I must address what I would have (wrongly, as it turns out) deemed to be an important factor weighing against the purchase of this set - namely its age and sonic limitations. Though never an opera which has appeared with the regularity of, say, Tosca or La Bohème, Manon is no stranger to the recording studio. So why even consider a set which is 75 years old? Of course, the strings can sound a little under-nourished at times and something of the impact in dramatic passages is dissipated due to its vintage. But, on the whole, this set wears its years surprisingly lightly and provides - and in spades, too - a glimpse into a vanished musical world. Naxos have been fortunate in securing the not inconsiderable engineering skills of Ward Marston as producer on this set and, once again, he has deftly waved his magic wand over the proceedings. Working from a mixture of French and American pressings, he has brought his uniquely well-attuned ear to bear on the aural problems inherent in a recording of this age and has breathed new life into it, as he has to many other elderly offerings in the past. It is true to say that there are some occasional anomalies in sound, and this is unavoidable with early electric recordings. He explains in his sleeve notes how he has, amongst other things, also judiciously added a small amount of reverberation to the soundstage to rectify what was a noticeable flatness apparent in the original pressings. This is in no way an imposition and he works as a picture restorer would on a faded old master, carefully removing layers of grime to reveal a vibrancy beneath which has for years been hidden from view. The love of this music displayed by the singers, orchestra and conductor alike is, happily, echoed in Mr Marstonís painstaking and sensitive remastering and the result is a little jewel of a set.

One caveat. When a recording has as many felicitous touches as this one, it makes the lack of a full libretto all the more regrettable. Naxos, sadly, have only seen fit to provide a cued synopsis and, while this may be satisfactory for a very well known work, the slightly more esoteric set warrants a full libretto - even if this does push up the cost of the set by a few pennies.

Not a first choice library recommendation then, if only on the grounds of its age, but certainly a set that will handsomely repay listening. I would have passed it by in ignorance and, in doing so, would have forsaken a recording of real value to which I shall enjoy returning again.

Richard Lee-Van den Daele

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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