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Victor MASSÉ (1822-1884)
Les Noces de Jeannette (1853)
La mule de Pedro

Galathée (1852)
Paul et Virginie

La Reine Topaze (1856)
Extracts from the operas with Ninon Vallin, Léon Ponzio, André Balbon, and Lemichel du Roy. Jeanne Manceau, Gabriel Soulacroix, Jeanne Gerville-Réache, Albert Vaguet and Lise Landouzy.
Les Noces de Jeannette conducted by Laurent Halet and recorded in 1922 (Overture from a 1948 radio broadcast with an orchestra conducted by Jules Gressier) - other selections undated
MALIBRAN MR 559 [78.27]

Victor Massé? Who he? Well Malibran doesn’t tell us – their latest batch of releases is note-less and so we face very much a Fabrique en Français impasse. But Massé is hardly an unknown. Born not Victor but Felix-Marie he was a prodigy pianist studying with Zimmermann and with Halévy for composition. He moved to Rome where he continued his studies and once back in Paris he hit his stride, earning celebrity whilst still in his twenties with a series of romance operas. He turned academic in 1866, assuming the position of professor of counterpoint at the Paris Conservatoire and turned out grand and light operas for the rest of his life. His last work, Une Nuit de Cléopatre, was performed posthumously in April 1885.

What we have therefore is a series of extracts from some of those works that ensured his temporary celebrity. The most substantial by far is the adventurous selection from Les Noces de Jeannette (1853) made by Pathé in 1922 and starring the adorable Ninon Vallin. I say made in 1922 but actually the overture wasn’t recorded and instead we have a 1948 radio broadcast conducted by Jules Gressier. And what a charmer of an overture it is – with bells and blithe festive spirit, the music is full of Rossinian gusto and the playing’s very enthusiastic. The 1922 extracts reinforce one’s view of Vallin as one of the greatest embodiments of French style – élan is an easy word to use of her but no less true for all that – whose light soprano is here in the freshest of voices (though she was still sounding fresh voiced when she was seventy). Her breathless precision in the extract beginning Margot, lève ton sabot is a delight, happily matched by her partner, Léon Ponzio, who shows yet again what a characterful light baritone he was; how vocally resourceful and full of personality he always seemed. Above all we can reconcile this series of extracts with the complete Manon that Vallin never recorded (there are substantial extracts but no complete recording from her). The instinct for quicksilver character changing, for declamation but also for ineffable softness is there in these 1922 recordings as is her marvellous coloratura (sample the Nightingale’s air here). The recording is in a fine state of preservation and there’s only one abrupt side join (in Vallin’s Air du Rossignol, as it happens).

The other extracts show Massé’s Rossini-influenced brio – touched I think with an admixture of his contemporary Offenbach’s rollicking fun – in full flood. Ponzio is ebullient in his aria from La mule de Pedro and we are introduced to other stellar French voices. Balbon proves himself a character actor born to the part, Lemichel du Roy’s coloratura almost matches Vallin’s and, even better, Soulacroix crops up in an ancient Odéon to give a marvellously evocative turn in Paul et Virginie – her piano accompaniment sounds like a cimbalom but no matter. Similarly another great figure is here - Jeanne Gerville-Réache who gave the premiere of Pelleas et Melisande with Mary Garden and Périer. She shows her still legendary power and range in her extract from the same opera – but she can lighten her tone magically. Is there a set of her recordings around? Albert Vaguet was one of the most mellifluous French singers around at the time and he doesn’t disappoint in Par quel charme – charm is indeed the operative word in his case. If only whole schools of French vocalism hadn’t melted away like the snow. Finally there is another Odéon, probably contemporary with Soulacroix’s. No dates are given here but I think c1906 is about right. It’s sung by Lise Landouzy and self announced, as was often the custom. She was a star of the Opéra-Comique and it leaps through the grooves in her performance of an aria from La Reine Topaze. Technically it’s not one hundred percent but goodness, what bell like clarity and éclat.

Well, that’s Victor Massé. Some of the copies are somewhat rough but it’s not surprising as some of them are just a year or two short of a century old. We have a mini roll call of the good and the great of French vocalism from the period and what individualists they were, fusing splendid techniques with clarity of projection, absorbing Italian influences and French intimacies and always retaining total independence. This is obviously a specialist release but while there are discs like this around I’ll be reviewing them.

Jonathan Woolf


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