Massenet’s Manon has done rather well on
disc. In addition to some interesting modern performances - Angela
Gheorgiu, Renee Fleming, Ileana Cotrubas, Beverly Sills - the
opera has appeared in a number of fascinating historic issues.
Heldy, the reigning Opéra Comique soprano, recorded it in
1911, then Germaine
Féraldy recorded in 1928. Heddle Nash and Maggie Teyte recorded
excerpts in English (Dutton CDLX 7023) and the Opéra Comique returned
to it in 1955 with Pierre Monteux conducting and Victoria de Los
Angeles in the title role.
This 1955 recording
has had various incarnations on CD and has just been re-issued
by Naxos, coupled with de Los Angeles’s 1955 recordings with
Charles Munch of Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Été and Debussy’s
La Demoiselle Élue.
Of the historic
recordings mentioned above, this 1955 one is probably the
only one which could be listened to on a regular basis without
too much excuse required for its recorded sound. The set was
recorded in good mono and I could imagine living with this
recording. Whilst the sound-image is at times rather lively
and aggressive - particularly in the ensemble scenes - the
results are completely acceptable.
De Los Angeles
makes an enchanting Manon. She does not have the light, bright
timbre and effortless top which some French sopranos of the
past have brought to the role. But she does have great charm,
musicality and a plangency. You get the feeling that even
in the innocent, girlish and charming exchanges, there is
something deeper in Manon. Indeed, in the opening scene her
attempts at girlishness can veer towards the embarrassingly
coy. When it comes to the more dramatic episodes de Los Angeles’s
tone quality and empathy bring real feeling to the part. She
makes you care and brings out Manon’s dilemma. Thanks to her
special qualities, Manon is not just some flighty little girl.
Of course, de
Los Angeles is not perfect. Bright high coloratura is not
her forte but she copes very well, and I would far rather
have a moving Manon – as here - than one who is simply bright
Whilst she might
be seen as the star of this recording, in many ways the centre
of attention is the ensemble of the Opéra Comique. This set
belongs to that wonderful group of 1950s recordings where
we catch the final flowering of the ensemble before internationalisation
blunted its edges. This does not mean that every role is perfectly
sung, but you do feel part of a company whose members are
fully integrated into both the composer’s style and the dramatic
needs of the piece.
The ensemble also
has the immense advantage that every role sounds like a distinctive
character, giving an advantage over more modern recordings
where similar sounding, under-characterised voices leave you
scrabbling for the libretto to check who is singing.
The cast has a
notable depth of experience, René Herent made his debut as
Guillot in 1918. And of course Monteux himself - in his eighties
when the recording was made - played in the Opéra Comique
Orchestra and performed Manon while the composer was
can often lapse into schlamperei, here under Monteux’s
watchful eye the Opéra Comique delivers a performance which
is diamond-sharp. They sing, and speak, in idiomatic French,
delivering Massenet’s music with an acuteness and avoidance
of sentimentality which sets off the performances of the principals.
The overall diction is superb and the opera can be followed
easily by anyone with half decent French.
Henri Le Gay is,
perhaps, a little light weight for Des Grieux; in fact the
role was intended for Jussi Björling, but he refused. Le Gay
is engaging and youthful sounding - the singer was 35 when
the recording was made. He is wonderfully refined and if he
does not quite have the power for the really big moments,
his performance is so finely judged that you forgive him knowing
that there are few tenors around that could do as well today
… and certainly not in such lovely French.
The other principals
are equally impressive and similarly nuanced. Michel Dens’s
Lescaut mixes a lovely swagger with great charm. This is a
character that we can easily love and hate. Jean Vieuille
is suitably worldly as De Bretigny and Jean Borthayre is warm
and personable as Des Grieux’s father, avoiding making him
too much the villain.
Neither the chorus
nor the orchestra are perfect, but they do not particularly
let the side down and contribute immensely to the general
style of the performance.
At a little over
160 minutes, Manon has to spread over three
CDs to avoid awkward side-breaks. Naxos have filled the last
CD with two more of de Los Angeles’s recordings of French
music, Debussy’s La Demoiselle Élue and Berlioz’s
Les nuits d’été. Both recordings date from
around the same time as Manon and de Los Angeles is
finely accompanied by Charles Munch. Whilst neither recording
would be at the top of my list the singing is charming and
This set is essential
listening for anyone who wants to get the feel for what Manon
sounded like at the Opéra Comique. It is a precious record
of a vanished performance style and has the great advantage of
a ravishing Manon from de Los Angeles.