About this Recording
8.110203-04 - MASSENET: Manon (Feraldy / Opera-Comique) (1928-1929)
English 

Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)

Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)

Manon

Jules Massenet wrote some forty operas but today only Manon has a sure foothold on the stage, although Werther is highly esteemed and a few others are produced from time to time. The secrets of Manon’s success are not difficult to discern: it has a strong story, with superb rôles for the prima donna and the leading man, and the music is by turns charming, lyrical and dramatic. Manon herself is given music that is both beautiful and memorable, and two of her contributions, one of them the gavotte that was a late addition to the score, are often heard on their own. The tenor’s two arias also have an even healthier life outside the opera.

The work was the second to be based on the novel Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost (1697-1763), who had been a Benedictine monk but had broken his vows and gone into exile in England and Holland. The 1856 opéra comique by Auber had not been a success, so Massenet felt able to suggest the topic to the famous librettist Henri Meilhac in 1881 (later Puccini would commandeer it for his first great success). With Philippe Gille joining Meilhac as collaborator, the sprawling story was condensed, the major change being that Manon’s death occurred in France rather than America. Lescaut was made Manon’s cousin rather than her brother. The opera was completed during 1882 and orchestrated in the first half of 1883 — Massenet actually composed some of the music in The Hague, staying in rooms which had once been occupied by Prévost. Although the piece was designated an opéra comique, it had the minimum of dialogue; Massenet did, however, compose some passages in melodrama (speech over music). He also left a version with sung settings of the spoken passages. The première took place at the Paris Opéra-Comique on 19th January 1884 and the following year Manon was heard in Liverpool and New York. It quickly became popular. The Chevalier Des Grieux has been sung by Enrico Caruso, Fernand Ansseau, André D’Arkor, Henri Legay, Nicolai Gedda and Alain Vanzo, while among the famed exponents of Manon have been Geraldine Farrar, Fanny Heldy, Maggie Teyte, Ninon Vallin and Victoria de los Angeles.

The present recording is a showcase for another notable Manon, Germaine Féraldy. It was not the first notable set to appear — Pathé had made one in 1923 with Heldy — but it was the first in really good sound and two generations of record collectors learnt the opera from it. Even today it has not been surpassed. Inevitably the 78rpm recording now sounds dated but the performance itself is such a magnificent example of teamwork and style that it can still give more pleasure than any other. Under the baton of Elie Cohen, the superb cast sing in a conversational fashion that is a lost art today. The ‘highlights’ are not thrown away but they take their natural place in the scheme of things, rather than being emphasized. A good example can be found in Act Two, where within a few minutes we hear Manon’s ‘Adieu, notre petite table’ and Des Grieux’s ‘En fermant les yeux’, both delivered with perfect poise, almost as if they were being spoken. It is worth noting that, like several of the galaxy of tenors who graced the Paris stages between the wars, Joseph Rogatchewsky was not French born; yet he fits into an otherwise Franco-Belgian cast without dropping a syllable. Two other important ingredients are the idiomatic choral singing and a style of orchestral playing that in 1928/9 had not changed much since Massenet’s time. We hear real French flutes, horns and bassoons and string playing (using gut strings) mostly ‘on the string’, with détaché employed only as a special effect. Like the singers, the players are all imbued with the lightness and grace that was the Opéra-Comique way. Alas, under the deadening leadership of preening, overweening ‘international’ conductors, the French style has been bulldozed out of existence, but it lives again every time we listen to these CDs.

Elie Cohen made his Opéra-Comique début with Lakmé on 7th August 1922 and in the years between the wars was a valued conductor at the house, conducting much ballet, including Swan Lake, as well as opera. He made a number of exquisite recordings, including some of the Songs of the Auvergne with Madeleine Grey, excerpts from Mignon, and admired sets of Carmen and Werther. Little is known of his life outside the theatre.

Germaine Féraldy was born in Toulouse in 1894 and died there unexpectedly in 1949. She studied at the Conservatoires in her native city and Paris, and after singing all over France and Belgium arrived at the Opéra-Comique on 18th August 1924 as Micaëla in Carmen. Until 1942 she was a great favourite at the house, singing the title rôles in Mireille, Manon, La traviata and Lakmé and taking part in both of Ravel’s one-acters. A beautiful woman with a fine stage presence, she was also a guest artist in Monte Carlo, Nice, London, Brussels and Rio de Janeiro and made a number of recordings. After her retirement she taught at the Toulouse Conservatoire.

Joseph Rogatchewsky was born in Mirgorod, Ukraine, in 1891 but went to Paris at the age of eighteen to study and fought in the French army in the Great War. Having returned to the Conservatoire to finish his studies, he made his début in 1922 in Toulouse and was immediately engaged by the Opéra-Comique, making his bow in Tosca. From 1924 he was based at the Monnaie in Brussels, where he was hugely popular until 1952 and then became the theatre’s director until 1959; but he returned regularly to the Opéra-Comique, also singing at the Paris Opéra and in Vienna. From 1960 he taught singing in Brussels and he died in retirement at Ixelles in 1985. Apart from Manon he made excellent solo discs for Columbia.

Georges Villier, whose real name was Borckmans, was born in Brussels in 1884 and was a leading Belgian baritone. He studied law but gravitated to music at the Liège Conservatoire, making his début at the Monnaie in 1910. During the Great War, after military service in which he was taken prisoner, he directed the opera house at Antwerp. He then sang in Marseille and at the Trianon Lyrique in Paris, moving to the Opéra-Comique in 1925 and singing major rôles there for ten years. In Belgium he organized the Quatuor Villier which gave many concerts, and he was a well-known solo recitalist. His later opera performances were in Belgian houses, giving his farewell performance as Figaro in The Barber of Seville at the Théatre du Parc in 1946. He made many records of opera, operettes and mélodies, and died in 1963.

The bass-baritone Louis Guénot was born in 1891 and was a stalwart of the Opéra-Comique from 1922 until after the Second World War, equally adept in leading rôles such as Escamillo in Carmen or Zurga in The Pearl Fishers and in character rôles — he even sang Osmin in Die Entführung. He took part in Elie Cohen’s recordings of Carmen (taking three rôles) and Werther and also made some solo discs. He died in 1968.

Tully Potter

Synopsis

CD 1

Act I

[1] The Prélude includes festive music from the Cours-la Reine in Paris, the song of the soldiers taking Manon to Le Havre for transportation and the love of Des Grieux for Manon.

[2] The nobleman Guillot and tax collector De Brétigny come from the summerhouse of a hostelry in Amiens into the courtyard, calling for the innkeeper, joined in their shouts by the girls Poussette, Javotte and Rosette. The innkeeper appears at last.

[3] Waiters follow with various dishes that the innkeeper indicates to his guests, who go back to the summerhouse, followed by the waiters. The Chevalier Des Grieux has asked the innkeeper to reserve him a place on the coach.

[4] Townspeople gather, awaiting the arrival of the coach. Lescaut enters, with two other guardsmen, whom he tells to go to find a drink. He is waiting for the arrival of his cousin and will later join them in their drinking.

[5] Manon arrives, excited at her journey, almost forgetting that she was on the way to a convent. There is some commotion as the travellers prepare to leave again. Lescaut goes to seek Manon’s luggage, leaving her alone for a moment.

[6] Guillot appears on the balcony and approaches her, her laugh echoed by De Brétigny and the girls. He offers her love and riches, and tells her that a coach will soon be there for her.

[7] Lescaut returns, as Guillot withdraws. His friends suggest gaming, and, pleading important business, he leaves Manon, advising her how to behave.

[8] Manon reproaches herself for her fancies, which she should leave at the convent door, but when she sees the three actresses, Poussette, Javotte and Rosette, she cannot help but admire their dresses and jewellery.

[9] Des Grieux comes out from the inn. He is at once captivated by Manon and asks her name. She tells him that she is intended for a convent, but he swears he will never allow it.

[10] Together they will take the coach that Guillot is providing and live together in Paris. The actresses in the summerhouse call to Guillot, as Manon still admires their finery. [Lescaut, who has lost his money, returns to find Manon gone. He turns angrily to Guillot, who enters the courtyard, only to find that Manon has left in Guillot’s coach, together with a young man. Guillot demands revenge, while Lescaut regrets the stain on the honour of his family.]

Act II

[11] In their Paris apartment Manon looks over the shoulder of her lover, Des Grieux, who is writing a letter to his father, telling him of Manon and his wish to marry. He is about to go when he catches sight of a bouquet of flowers, and asks where they came from. Manon tells him that someone threw them through the window. A servant announces the arrival of Lescaut and De Brétigny, the latter her neighbour and admirer, but in disguise.

[12] Lescaut is at first for revenge, but, when challenged by Des Grieux, is advised by his companion to try politeness. Des Grieux shows Lescaut the letter he has written to his father, evidence of his good intentions. Meanwhile De Brétigny tells Manon that Des Grieux is to be abducted by his father; if she warns him, they will lose everything, but if she remains silent, everything will be hers. Manon is moved by De Brétigny’s offers, while Lescaut, seemingly satisfied by the letter Des Grieux has written, leaves with his companion.

[13] Des Grieux goes to post his letter, leaving Manon alone to muse on her situation, her love for Des Grieux, and the material possibilities that now lie before her. Tearfully she bids farewell to the little table and the place where she and her lover had been happy.

[14] Des Grieux returns and as they take their dinner he tells her of the vision he has had of a little house in an idyllic landscape, that would be Paradise, but only if she were with him. There is a knock at the door and Des Grieux, in spite of her attempts to prevent him, goes down to open it, only to be seized by his father’s people. Manon watches as the carriage is heard leaving.

Act III

Scene 1

[15] A Minuet is heard.

[16] It is a holiday on the Cours-la Reine, with vendors of all sorts, among the crowds in the street. Poussette and Javotte, as well as Javotte, come out of a music hall and soon find men for company, escaping for the moment from the attentions of Guillot.

[17] Lescaut is tempted to buy everything from the hawkers for his Rosalinde. The girls run away from Guillot, who is following them and is now warned by De Brétigny not to steal Manon from him; she has demanded a private performance of the opera, which he has refused her, suggesting a possible course of action to Guillot.

[18] The crowd admires the elegance of the women they see, including Manon, who must at least be a duchess, they think.

[19] Manon, in her pursuit of pleasure, arouses the admiration of everyone, as she walks, leaning on De Brétigny’s arm. Her philosophy is one of pleasure, while she is young.

[20] To the music of a gavotte Manon resolves to profit from her beauty and youth.

 

CD 2

[1] Manon leaves De Brétigny for a moment, going into a shop, and as she comes out she hears the Comte Des Grieux, father of her old lover, telling De Brétigny that his son has entered the seminary of St Sulpice, to become a priest, and will preach that evening.

[2] He sees Manon and asks if she is the one that his son loved. She approaches the Comte, pretending that she is a friend of Manon, seeking to know the present feelings of Des Grieux. The Comte assures her that his son has forgotten Manon.

[3] Guillot tells De Brétigny that he has engaged the ballet for Manon. The general opinion is that the expense will be ruinous.

[4] The dancers arrive, to general wonder and amazement, and perform, but Manon has been thoughtful and resolved to go to St Sulpice to find Des Grieux. Guillot is flabbergasted at her behaviour, but the festivities of the crowd continue.

Scene 2

[5] The service is ending at St Sulpice. Ladies from the congregation enter the seminary parlour, moved by the sermon of the Abbé Des Grieux, whom they greet, as he comes in.

[6] The Comte asks his son if he is resolved to continue in the church, and Des Grieux expresses his distaste for the world. His father advises him to find a wife, but Des Grieux is adamant.

[7] Alone, Des Grieux admits that he cannot forget Manon. He leaves for another service.

[8] Manon enters and hearing the sounds of the Magnificat, prays for forgiveness.

[9] Des Grieux returns and when he sees Manon tells her to go. She pleads with him, admitting her cruelty, but at first he will not listen to her.

[10] She pleads further, asking if her hands, voice and eyes no longer have any charms for him. The bells are heard, but Des Grieux can resist no longer, and leaves with her.

Act IV

[11] There is gambling at the Hotel Transylvanie, where sharpers are active. Lescaut is there, addicted to gaming, as ever. There is always something for Poussette, Javotte and Rosette here. [Lescaut sings in praise of his love, the Queen of Spades, and Guillot sings a satirical song about the Regent.]

[12] Guillot exclaims on the arrival of Des Grieux and Manon, which causes general interest and excites Guillot’s jealousy once more. Manon urges her lover to gamble, as their resources are now exhausted.

[13] He yields and accepts the challenge of Guillot, to the excitement of the actresses, who are looking on, while Manon expresses the fascination that gold, love, beauty and material things have for her.

[14] Des Grieux and Guillot play, the latter losing and eventually accusing Des Grieux of cheating, to the latter’s immediate anger. Threatening them, Guillot leaves, to return later with the police.

[15] The Comte Des Grieux arrives, assuring his son of release, while Manon, for whom he refuses to intervene, is taken away, now separated from her lover.

Act V

[16] On the road to Le Havre Des Grieux waits for Manon to pass, with the women arrested and condemned to transportation to Louisiana. Lescaut admits he has been unable to find men to attack the guards. The soldiers sing as they march. Des Grieux is for attacking them, but Lescaut prudently bribes the sergeant to allow a brief interview with Manon. The rest of the troop moves on and Lescaut leads the remaining guard aside, giving the lovers a moment together.

[17] Manon, now weak with illness, reproaches herself for her behaviour to Des Grieux. He has only forgiveness for her, as they sing of their love and remember their past happiness. Now too weak to go on, Manon can only give her lover a kiss, before dying in his arms. He tries to revive her, but in vain, and with a cry he falls on her lifeless body.

Keith Anderson

Producer’s Note

Massenet’s Manon was the second complete opera to have been recorded by French Columbia, the first having been Bizet’s Carmen. Both recordings were released in Europe as well as America and remained in the catalogue until the close of the 78rpm era. By the year 1932, three additional recordings of Carmen had become available to the record buying public but this version of Massenet’s most popular opera remained unchallenged for more than twenty-five years.

The sound of this recording is extremely good for its time possessing an excellent balance between the singers and the orchestra. Its major flaw, however, is the fact that it was recorded in an acoustically dead studio with the singers placed a bit too close to the microphone. I have taken the liberty of adding a small amount of artificial reverberation which will, hopefully, give the performance a more pleasant sound without detracting from its immediacy. I have transferred the recording from two sets of French and two sets of American pressings, all in mint condition. I compared all copies of each side and chose the one which yielded the quietest surface without compromising the recorded sound. In fact, some of the American pressings, though quieter, occasionally lacked sonic vividness. In such cases, I opted to use the slightly noisier French pressings. I also used several stylus sizes to achieve optimum reproduction.

It took several months to complete this recording, and consequently, it possesses certain inconsistencies that I should mention. First, glancing at the cast list, one can’t help but notice that several minor rôles were shared by two or even three different singers depending upon the particular side. This is probably due to the fact that Columbia used whoever might have been available on any particular day. So long as the important singers were present, the others were left to chance. The second inconsistency concerns the recorded sound. Considering the fact that the performance heard here was recorded over a number of sessions, the actual sound is remarkably consistent from one side to another. It should be noted, however, that two sides in Act I were defectively recorded. The first of these is side two (matrix WLX730) which begins with the words "Allons Messieurs." The sound here is extremely distorted and strident, resisting my best efforts at improvement. The same sonic flaw afflicts side five (matrix WLX729) beginning "Hôtelier de malheur." Finally, I should mention that there is an inconsistency in speed, not only from one side to another but also within particular individual sides. In remastering this recording, I have attempted to correct the pitch whenever necessary.


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