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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
(an opera in five acts) (1882-84)
Manon Lescaut - Germaine Féraldy (soprano)
Le Comte Des Grieux - Louis Guénot (bass-baritone)
Le Chevalier Des Grieux - Josef Rogatchewsky (tenor)
Lescaut - Georges Villier (baritone)
Pousette - Andrée Vavon (soprano)
Javotte - Jeanne Rambert/Mme Ravery (side 31) (soprano)
Rosette - Andrée Bernadet/Marguerite Julliot (sides 29, 32) (soprano)
Rosette - Marinette Fenoyer (side 33) (soprano)
Guillot - Emile de Creus (tenor)
De Brétigny - Jean Vieuille/André Gaudin (sides 17, 20, 21) (baritone)
L’Hôtelier - Paul Payan
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra-Comique, Paris/Elie Cohen
rec. December 1928-March 1929, on 36 sides by French Columbia. ADD
ITALIAN MUSIC COMPANY 200206 [76.08 + 65.25]

Back in 2003, two MWI colleagues reviewed the Naxos issue of this classic, vintage recording. They were of course enthusiastic about both the standard of performance and the quality of sound for so venerable a recording, but Jonathan expressed reservations regarding Ward Marston’s application of “artificial reverberation to attempt to counter the rather dead acoustic of the Columbia studios in Paris.” He suggested that those for whom this was too much should try another issue, such as are currently available on the Melodram, Cantus, Arkadia and Malibran labels, but this 1996 one under review, from IMC, an Italian company which for all I know no longer exists, might also suit. There is occasionally some obtrusive swish from the old 78’s, especially, unfortunately, at the quiet start of Des Grieux’s Dream Song, “En fermant les yeux”, but for the most part the exceptional clarity and minimal distortion achieved by the original recording shine through as a source of wonder to the modern listener.

As with Naxos, there is no libretto, nor does IMC provide even a synopsis, but anyone purchasing this is probably doing so as a historical supplement and will already have or want a more modern recording with a libretto. Furthermore, there are no timings at all – I borrowed those above from Naxos edition – just track titles and some nice photos and biographies of the singers - and that’s it. Nor does the cast list here reflect the fact that changes in personnel were necessitated by gap of several month between the two recording dates; I refer you again to Jonathan’s review for details.

A performance like this helps you to understand Sir Thomas Beecham’s famous – and no doubt deliberately provocative – declaration that he would “give up all the Brandenburgs for Manon and would think that I had profited by the exchange". The sound really is no great barrier to appreciating its charms when it is this well sung; I thoroughly enjoy it all, with one, minor reservation.

First performed in Paris in 1884, Manon was both generally retrospective in musical style and innovative in its use of spoken dialogue over orchestral accompaniment. I have just come from recently reviewing Massenet’s La Navarraise, and no comparison of any other two of his works better demonstrates the composer’s range and versatility. The perfumed elegance and classical pastiche of Manon could hardly be more removed from the noisy bombast and verismo clout of the later opera, first presented ten years later in London. Whatever its musical character, the opera comes across as supremely, Gallic-authentic in this recording. There is a lightness of touch and a naturalness of delivery which never cloy or obtrude; it helps that the entire cast is French with the exception of Josef Rogatchewsky, a Ukrainian-born tenor but French by adoption and French in all but name. Everyone else, conductor, orchestra and singers alike, are clearly steeped in the Opéra-Comique tradition.

Germaine Féraldy has a light, pure soprano with a fast vibrato and perfect intonation. She encompasses the coloratura with ease, sings “off the text”, and her words are crystal clear. There is nothing overt or applied about her characterisation or vocalisation, but everything she does smacks of sincerity, encompassing the teenage Manon’s naivety without being mawkish or arch, and easily rising to the big moments without forcing or over-emoting. She is also genuinely charming and moving, giving an object lesson in how less is more when you know just how to sing this music. The highlight is the Cours-la-Reine scene; she is captivating yet the voice always admits of latent sadness beneath the triumphant bravado.

Rogatschewsky is a fine singer, even throughout his range and with a sure command of diminuendi to lend sensitivity and sensibility to his portrayal of Des Grieux. However, he has one, besetting vocal tic which can irritate on repetition: a persistent little glottal break or catch at the end of higher-lying phrases. Jonas Kaufann increasingly does it, too, and apparently it irks me more than it does others.

The rest of the cast is more than adequate without being especially distinguished: the Lescaut and Des Grieux senior were stalwarts of the company, wholly idiomatic and attractive, if rather light of tone, and the supporting singers sound as if they are enjoying what they are singing.

The conductor Eli Cohen is no slouch but does not rush and his tempi always sound right in a performance where verve and momentum prevail. Unlike some historical recordings, the orchestra is perfectly audible and balances are very good. Even the ballet music, which can pall, entertains. There are some traditional cuts but nothing serious.

Don’t be put off by the age of the recording; every lover of Massenet at his best will enjoy it, whether it be in the Naxos transfer or on one of the labels I mention above.

Ralph Moore

Previous reviews (Naxos): Jonathan Woolf ~ Richard Lee-Van den Dael



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