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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Manon (1882-84)
Manon Lescaut – Fanny Heldy (soprano)
Le Comte Des Grieux – Pierre Dupré (bass-baritone)
Le Chevalier Des Grieux - Jean Marny (tenor)
Lescaut – Léon Ponzio (baritone)
Poussette – Marthe Coiffier (soprano)
Javotte – Madeleine Sibille (soprano)
Rosette – Luciene Estève (soprano)
Guillot – Louis Mesmaeker (tenor)
De Brétigny – Maurice Sauvegeot (baritone)
L’Hôtelier – Louis Morturier
La Servente – Marguerite Julliot
Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra-Comique/Henri Büsser
Recorded 1923
MALIBRAN MR 558 [2 CDs 155.38]


This is the earliest recording of Manon, made in 1923 with a strong cast under the very fluent conductor Henri Büsser, a future luminary of the Opéra-Comique. It was issued on 48 sides – 24 records – and preserves the performance of Fanny Heldy, the Belgian soprano who assumed the mantle of this role for many years. Hers is a light, very well and forwardly projected voice. The vibrato is rigorously centred and her core tone has a light girlish timbre; it’s the opposite of a heavy dramatic soprano sound and is instead emblematic of the Franco-Belgian tradition she so nobly upheld. Technically she is untroubled by the demands placed upon her; her coloratura is tremendous, and accurate, her impersonation running from coquettishness and flirtation to its furthermost remove, all achieved through subtleties of vocal inflection, employing such expressive devices as floated pianissimi with breathtaking candour. One feels her absorption of characterisation grow throughout the recording, as it must in a convincing portrayal, as she fuses enveloping emotionalism and aloof sophistication with equally plausible significance. Her Des Grieux is Jean Marny, who partnered her on stage in the role and he proves an apt foil. The voice is an elegant Franco-Belgian tenor, open but clear; like hers his vibrato is under control, though flexibly deployed. Indeed as does she he sounds a young Des Grieux, ardent and true, though with a back up of technique at his disposal (listen to the St Suplice scene). He also employs something that Villabella and many other French tenors had – Villabella was a Bilbao Basque but his training and musical ethos was French – and that is the voix mixte. This is a characteristic sound, a fusion of floated head voice mixed with a falsetto. I don’t think his was quite the equal of Villabella’s – whose breath control and sustain are remarkable – but Marny employs it with greater musical discretion and sense of narrative implications. His dream aria is certainly evocative and moving and he uses this kind of voice production throughout.

Lescaut is Léon Ponzio and he is always a characterful singer, the epitome of engagement. Whenever I listen to him I’m aware that his vibrato sometimes widens – it contrasts with Marny and Heldy’s certainly – but it does add to the vocal brew of this recording. He has that characteristically light baritone that proves mobile and stylish. Count des Grieux is Pierre Dupré, a bass-baritone of calm assurance. It’s not a particularly deep voice but it has real flexibility and, again, character. Obviously things are not perfect in this Hill-and-Dale recording; the orchestra is quite small and sports typical reinforced basses (in the form of low brass) and the violins do take on a slithery, reedy quality that is one side of the French string school (the other is sensual elegance). And Büsser certainly doesn’t hang around, whether through natural inclination or through the exigencies of a large-scale recording over 48 sides made in a short period of time; quite an undertaking for the time but certainly not unique. One can hear his vitesse as early as the second scene – Holà! Hé, Monsieur L’Hôtelier – which he takes at a right old lick. Still, the copies used are in reasonable shape and frequency response is good. There are no notes, which is a shame because the interest in this set won’t, I guarantee, be confined to French speakers. It’s an impressive achievement, this first Manon, and in Heldy we find an exquisite adornment strongly second by Marny’s patrician elegance. So, this is more than a curiosity or discographical footnote – and it comes highly recommended, especially to those who might know the Germaine Féraldy - Josef Rogatchewsky - Elie Cohen recording of 1928-29 but were unaware of this pioneering set.

Jonathan Woolf


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