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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
(an opera in five acts) (1882-84)
Manon Lescaut - Germaine Féraldy (soprano)
Le Comte Des Grieux - Louis Guénot (bass-baritone)
Le Chevalier Des Grieux - Josef Rogatchewsky (tenor)
Lescaut - Georges Villier (baritone)
Pousette - Andrée Vavon (soprano)
Javotte - Jeanne Rambert/Mme Ravery (side 31) (soprano)
Rosette - Andrée Bernadet/Marguerite Julliot (sides 29, 32) (soprano)
Rosette - Marinette Fenoyer (side 33) (soprano)
Guillot - Emile de Creus (tenor)
De Brétigny - Jean Vieuille/André Gaudin (sides 17, 20, 21) (baritone)
L’Hôtelier - Paul Payan
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra-Comique, Paris/Elie Cohen
Recorded on 36 sides by French Columbia, December 1928-March 1929
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110203-04 [2CDs: 76.08+65.25]

This classic of the gramophone – an oft-used phrase but used without equivocation here – returns to the catalogue in a transfer overseen by Ward Marston. It’s been around recently of course – I last saw it on EPM – but there seem to be no rivals at the moment so we should savour the judicious timing. One small point before we go any further – Marston has applied some artificial reverberation to attempt to counter the rather dead acoustic of the Columbia studios in Paris. It’s not something I’m particularly keen on but it has been applied with a degree of discretion here; those who object should be advised to seek out alternative transfers.

The first Manon predates this one by a number of years. Henri Busser took a stellar cast into the studios in 1923 to record for Pathé Hill and Dale. The trump cards were Fanny Heldy – delicious – and Jean Marny who made an imposing presence. Those lucky enough to have heard it will have doubtless have admired it, even at Busser’s fizzing tempi and it can be found, surprise, surprise, on Ward Marston’s own eponymous label. Elie Cohen’s Manon was recorded between December 1928 and March 1929 and this entailed some cast shuffling; a look at the head note will reveal that there are three Rosettes, two De Brétignys and two Javottes. The consistency maintained throughout the recording however more than compensates for the exigencies of programming entailed by a drawn out schedule. Foremost among them is Germaine Féraldy, who falls securely into the light voiced Franco-Belgian tradition (as indeed had Heldy before her). Her emotive presence is unmissable; her impersonation is uncannily convincing whether pouting or lolling in soubrettish delight or singing the love music with such elegance and authentic panache. With her is Josef Rogatchewsky, Russian born but who carved out a distinguished career in France. He’s rather less aristocratic than Marny before him but he does possess a beautifully equalized tone and a powerful instinct for the emotive subtext. In addition he has a sure command of expressive diminuendi and pianissimi, which lend subtlety and depth to his musicianship.

Leading them is Elie Cohen. He makes some theatre cuts – expected at this time in the recording industry – and does away with some of the bridging passages but otherwise he is an excellent conductor; firm, flexible, certainly no dawdler because this is a noticeably taut and quick moving Manon. Listen to the springy string playing he encourages in the Prelude – real light, French bowing – and the fine chattering oboes as well. There is some overload in Hors d’oeuvre de choix- a passage where the added reverberation is too much for me – and a little distortion as well (Marston goes into the ramifications of the recording problems, not that there were many, in some detail). Elsewhere one can appreciate Féraldy’s exquisite portamenti in Je suis encore tout étourdie as well as what one has to call her provocatively fluttery elegance in her scene with Des Grieux (Quelqu’un…J’ai marqué) and her delicately shaded lower notes. Rogatchewsky shines in this scene as well – where his strength and ardency and sheer stylishness make themselves wonderfully apparent.

For balance between orchestra and singers try Act II’s C’est lui! where the delicate orchestral choirs behind Rogatchewsky are perfectly judged by both conductor and recording engineers. And in the Third Act Entr’acte we can hear more of those gut string fiddle players and the perky bass – there’s a real idiomatic crispness to their phrasing here and throughout. Admirers of this kind of patina should listen long and hard to the Gallic charm of the solo violin in Ballet…C’est fête in Act III or indeed to the violins’ portamanti in Les Dévotes’ Quelle éloquence (a sentiment I’m happy to second). One can hear in this playing remnants of the Capet tradition in French violin playing as well as the expected eloquence of the violas and cellos. The other vocal parts are splendidly taken as well; Georges Villier and Louis Guénot make a formidable pairing.

I’m sufficiently concerned about the artificial reverberation to withhold absolute recommendation. Of the performance itself I have no doubts. This is the French tradition caught still in its heyday and it has given us a Manon in some ways still unmatched.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Richard Lee-Van den Daele

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