Jules MASSENET (1842 – 1912)
Manon - opéra-comique in five acts (1884)
Annick Massis (soprano) – Manon Lescaut; Alessandro Liberatore (tenor) – Le chevalier Des Grieux; Pierre Doyen (baritone) – Lescaut; Roger Joakim (bass) – Le comte des Grieux; Papuna Tchuradze (tenor) – Guillot de Morfontaine; Patrick Delcour (baritone) – De Brétigny; Sandra Pastrana (soprano) – Poussette; Alexise Yerna (mezzo) – Rosette; Sabine Conzen (mezzo) – Javotte
Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège/Patrick Davin
rec. L’Opéra de Liège, Belgium, October 2014
Synopsis but no libretto enclosed
DYNAMIC CDS7751/1-2 [78:55 + 72:54]

There have been a number of successful recordings of Massenet's Manon. Even if we leave out some elderly sets from the 78 rpm era and the early LP issue conducted by Pierre Monteux with Victoria de los Angeles in the title role, there remain several recommendable sets: Julius Rudel’s with Beverly Sills and Nicolai Gedda (now on DG); Michel Plasson’s with Ileana Cotrubas and Alfredo Kraus and Antonio Papano’s with Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna (both originally on EMI, now on Warner). This newcomer, recorded in October 2014, may have the odds against it since it is a live recording with everything that implies: stage noises, applause and uneven sound quality. Many of the singers may also be little known. When it comes to the crunch in this case these misgivings can, by and large, be disregarded. The stage noises are there but they only contribute to the feeling of a real occasion — they create atmosphere. The applause at the end of the acts is quickly faded out and when in a few places it occurs after the set-pieces one sympathises with it and feels inclined to join in. The recording balance cannot be faulted and we are treated to excellent sound from the orchestra with a lot of instrumental detail. The solo voices are also well reproduced and climaxes with chorus, ensemble and orchestra are impressively punchy. Patrick Davin, who is first guest conductor of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, leads his forces convincingly and avoids too much sentimentality, which can easily make this music cloying. The opera is here given in the version with sung recitatives and there are a number of cuts, which makes it possible to squeeze the whole thing onto two CDs.

The star of this performance is Annick Massis, one of the leading French sopranos since the early 1990s. She first worked as a school teacher and started rather late to train her voice. She has preserved all the characteristics of a lyric soprano admirably: beautiful tone, impressive coloratura, excellent trill and – most important – deep involvement and ability to shade the tone from soft pianissimo to full-blown fortissimo. When she pulls all the stops – as at the end of Obéissons quand leur voix appelle (CD 2 tr. 1) her brilliant top notes ring out with tremendous power. All the set-pieces for Manon are gems in this recording and there are lots of them – plus duets with Des Grieux and several ensembles. It is a tough role and I believe it was Beverly Sills who said it was the lyric repertoire’s equivalent to Tristan und Isolde. On this recording Massis sounds as fresh of voice at the end of the opera as she does at the beginning. Since there were five performances at Opéra Royal in October 2014, I suppose that Dynamic could pick and choose across the evenings. Alessandro Liberatore, here singing his first Des Grieux, is also admirable. He too can fine down his voice and sing beautiful pianissimos in half voice. En fermant les yeux (CD 1 tr. 14) is masterly. He can also be virile and dramatic, though in Ah! Fuyez douce image (CD 2 tr. 8) he sounds strained but in the duets with Manon he is impassioned and alive.

Pierre Doyen is a very good Lescaut, equipped with a well-schooled baritone of great beauty. Roger Joakim’s Le comte des Grieux is stern and authoritative and both Papuna Tchuradze and Patrick Delcour make worthy portraits of Guillot de Morfontaine and De Brétigny. Pousette, Rosette and Javotte are mostly heard in ensembles – and good they are.

One of the three studio recordings I mentioned at the beginning of the review may be a safer proposition for first-time buyers of Manon but no one trying the present issue should be seriously disappointed.

Göran Forsling

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