Over the years many famous sopranos have appeared on stage as Manon. Marie Heilbron created the role at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 19 January 1884. Among her followers can be mentioned Sybil Sanderson, Massenet’s personal favourite, Fanny Heldy, Geraldine Farrar, Lucrezia Bori, Bidu Sayao, Victoria de los Angeles, Anna Moffo, Beverly Sills, Edita Gruberova, Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko and Natalie Dessay. There have been a number of complete recordings, from an acoustic set in 1923 with Fanny Heldy through an early electric essay in 1929 with Germaine Féraldy and two early LP sets: Janine Micheau with Albert Wolff conducting and Victoria de los Angeles alongside Pierre Monteux at the helm. All of them were recorded with Opéra-Comique forces and French-speaking singers in the numerous solo roles. Of these the de los Angeles-Monteux set has long been regarded as definitive and though there have been a number of later offerings it still has claims to be a first recommendation, in spite of the mono sound. Even so all of the newer sets have a lot to recommend them. Julius Rudel in 1970, recorded in London, has Beverly Sills in one of her best roles. She was partnered by Nicolai Gedda, whose French is as idiomatic as any that of any native-born singer. Gabriel Bacquier was there as also was Gerard Souzay in one of his few opera recordings. Michel Plasson in 1982 had Ileana Cotrubas in the title role and Alfredo Kraus, Gino Quilico and José Van Dam in the other central roles.
The set under scrutiny appeared in 1999. During the first decade of the new century there have been, to my knowledge, three sets: Jesus Lopez-Cobos from the Opéra National de Paris with Renée Fleming, Marcelo Alvarez, Jean-Luc Chaignaud and Alain Vernhes (2001), Victor Pablo Perez with forces from Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona and with Natalie Dessay, Rolando Villazon, Manuel Lanza and Samuel Ramey in the leading parts (2007) and Daniel Barenboim at the Berlin State Opera with Anna Netrebko, Villazon (again), Alfredo Daza and Christof Fischesser (also 2007). These are all on DVD but the Lopez-Cobos and Barenboim sets are also available on CD. In other words there is a plethora of versions from which to choose.
One of the greatest assets of this eleven-year-old EMI set is the conducting. Antonio Pappano, as was also evident from the somewhat earlier Werther, draws excellent playing from his Belgian forces, with luscious strings that seduce the ear from the very beginning of the prelude. Massenet was a master at creating atmosphere, nowhere more beguiling than in the third act of this opera and Pappano catches this to perfection. Overall there is a sense of authenticity in this reading that makes it fully comparable to earlier versions. In the many lesser roles there are quite a few elderly-sounding singers but at least they have the true Gallic tone in their enunciation. It is interesting to find Sophie Koch in the small role of Javotte. She has since embarked upon a very successful career as a solo artist, not least of lieder. Gilles Ragon turns in a very good Guillot and Nicolas Rivenq’s De Brétigny is full of character. Earle Patriarco ten years ago was an excellent singer and his impersonation of Lescaut is very expressive and alive. As Comte Des Grieux José Van Dam is noble and warm, less sonorous than he was a decade earlier but his care over phrasing and nuance is as telling as ever.
But it is for the two central characters, Manon and Des Grieux, that we go to the opera house or buy recordings and both Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna are in excellent form. Ms Gheorghiu sings Adieu, notre petite table (CD 1 tr.31) with such ravishing beauty of tone that this listener, at least, literally melts. She almost challenges Victoria de los Angeles in Je marche sur tous les chemins and in the following gavotte she is plainly magical (CD 2 trs. 8-9). Gheorghiu has more than once been hailed as an heir to Callas and in several places she comes close to her model in expressivity.
Also Alagna is at the top of his form. En fermant les yeux (CD 1 tr. 33) is superbly sung with a fine-spun legato and in the third act Ah! fuyez, douce image (CD 2 tr. 26) we find him at his best, ardent, slightly over-emphatic but deeply felt. And in the duet scenes with Manon there is both glow and lyric sensitivity.
It is almost impossible to pick a clear winner in the crowded Manon field. I was deeply moved by Netrebko and Villazon’s sensual readings in the Barenboim but this Pappano is a serious contender and at its new attractive price it should be seriously contemplated by everyone who loves this magical opera.