About this Recording
8.111268-70 - MASSENET: Manon (los Angeles, Legay, Monteux) (1955)
English 

Great Opera Recordings
Jules Massenet (1842-1912)
Manon

Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille, aided by the composer
after the novel L'Histoire de Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost

Manon Lescaut – Victoria de los Angeles (soprano)
Chevalier Des Grieux – Henri Legay (tenor)
Count Des Grieux – Jean Borthayre (bass)
Lescaut – Michel Dens (baritone)
Guillot de Morfontaine – René Herent (tenor)
De Brétigny – Jean Vieuille (baritone)
Poussette – Liliane Berton (soprano)
Javotte – Raymonde Notti (soprano)
Rosette – Marthe Serres (soprano)

Chorus and Orchestra of the Théâtre National de l'Opéra-Comique
(Marcel Picheran, chorus master)

Pierre Monteux, conductor

 

Jules Emile Frédéric Massenet wrote nearly forty operas or operettas for the stage of which a number were subsequently lost. Of these only a handful are still regularly performed outside his native France: these include Hérodiade (1881), Werther (1884), Le Cid (1885), Esclarmonde (1889), Thaïs (1894), La navarraise (1894), Sapho (1897), Cendrillon (1899) and Don Quichotte (1910), but it is Manon which has survived above all the others.

Based on the Abbé Prévost's novel, the libretto for Manon was prepared by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille to embrace the then current Parisian requirement of five acts. The story is set in 1721 in Amiens where Manon first comes across Des Grieux, Paris where the main body of the plot is centred, and is concluded at the port of Le Havre where the heroine is to be deported from France. An opéra-comique based on the story had been composed by Auber and first heard in 1856: the work was not a success. Massenet had been aware of this earlier work but held back from writing another opera on the same story. It was not until 1881 that he first broached the subject with Meilhac who was joined by Gille. They worked hard to reduce the Abbé's rather sprawling novel into a manageable libretto. They also changed the finale of the opera, having Manon die on the roadside before Le Havre where Prévost has the heroine dying in America. Massenet wrote some of his score while in The Hague in 1882 in the very house where the Abbé Prévost (1697-1793) had once lived. The orchestration continued during the early part of 1883. The première took place at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 19 January 1884. The occasion was a great success so that the new work was heard in London in May the following year and New York in December that year. By the time of Massenet's death in 1912 Manon had been given over seven hundred performances and by 1950 the total had reached two thousand.

Massenet's musical realisation of the character of his heroine is certainly a touching and vivid portrait. The way the character develops from the innocent girl into a cunning and shrewd woman of the world is obviously seen through the eyes of an older man. The frivolities of the middle three acts must eventually lead to the fall of such a character, however sincere, simple, passionate but also mundane she may be. Her cousin the Chevalier des Grieux is overwhelmed by her presence and beauty, so much so that it almost makes him renounce the world into taking Holy Orders at Saint Sulpice, despite the words of wisdom from his father. The elegant, wealthy and polished De Brétigny is the complete opposite to Manon's younger true lover. The smaller rôles of the roué Guillot de Morfontaine and his three young lady friends form a lighter contrast to the passion and excitement of the two young lovers. Even that committed Wagnerian Ernest Newman once remarked that Manon was "undeniably a masterpiece in its own genre".

This recording of Manon was made in Paris from April to June 1955 in the acoustically perfect Palais de la Mutalité which EMI's French engineers particularly liked at that time. It was also one of the last to use artists under contract to RCA before their fifty years matrix licensing agreement expired in 1956. In fact the rôle of Des Grieux was originally offered to the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling but he declined. The sessions were spread over quite a period of time in order to allow the elderly conductor time to cat-nap in between, at various points in the day. Victoria de los Angeles spent the early part of June recording a collection of early Spanish music and her contribution was recorded towards the end of the allotted period. She herself recalled that during the Cours la Reine scene at the start of Act 3 there is a single top D which until that time she had not attempted. The tenor, Henri Legay, explained to the soprano that he was expecting that note as it had become a tradition in France. She said she did not have that note in her voice. The leader of the orchestra encouraged her to attempt that top D and with his connivance the soprano sang the note. She later claimed she always had the note but never used it in public.

In his chapter on the work in Opera on Record (Hutchinson, 1979), the late Alan Blyth remarked that "Victoria de los Angeles [is] an enchanting Manon, whose voice has enough personality on record for those who saw her on stage to recapture those live performances". He felt "Henri Legay is a lightweight but ardent Des Grieux" and said "Jean Borthayre's experienced, authoritative Count and Michael Dens's lively Lescaut are further reason for this set's success: so is the splendid contribution of the Opéra-Comique forces". He concluded by saying that "Monteux had the music in his bones and here dispenses it with authority and spirit".

Berlioz's Les Nuits d'été is a work with a considerable range of emotions assisted by a wide variety of coloration so it is little wonder that a singer with so warm and committed an approach as Victoria de los Angeles should have been drawn to the six songs to words by Théophile Gautier. Originally composed with piano and first issued in 1841, the composer later orchestrated the accompaniment in masterly style. 'Villanelle'is a shepherd's song, 'Le Spectre de la rose' describes the flower, 'Sur les lagunes'is a lament for a dead sweetheart, 'Absence'tells of lost love, 'Au cimetière' (Clair de lune) describes the poet lingering in a churchyard in the moonlight, and 'L'île inconnue'recalls a seascape in a tragic vein.

Debussy's less well-kown 'La damoiselle élue' (The Blessed Damozel) was composed in 1886-87 to a well known poem of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in a French translation by Gabriel Sarrazin. It was re-orchestrated in 1902. The work was first given in this later form by the Scottish soprano Mary Garden, who had created the rôle of Mélisande earlier that year. This is an early work which reveals the composer's debt to Massenet. It is for soprano, mezzo-soprano and female chorus.

Victoria de los Angeles (1923-2005) was born in Barcelona and later studied in that city with Dolores Frau. Aged eighteen, she sang Mimì in a student performance of La bohème. Her formal début was in 1945 as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro. After winning the Geneva International Singing Competition in 1947 she was invited the following year by the BBC in London to take part in two studio broadcast performances of Falla's La vida breve, an event which aroused great interest and critical acclaim. She then appeared at the Paris Opéra as Marguerite (Faust), Covent Garden in London as Mimì, La Scala in Milan as Strauss's Ariadne and the Metropolitan, New York as Marguerite, over three successive years from 1949 onwards. De los Angeles's rôles included Butterfly, Eva, Mélisande, Rosina, Violetta, Desdemona and Elisabeth. She later sang at Bayreuth in 1961 but thereafter began to confine her appearances to the concert hall. Her voice was one of great lyrical beauty and conveyed infinite tonal contrasts with an unusually warm lower register. She recorded extensively in both opera and song, particularly in the latter area, especially Spanish music of many centuries, which she did much to promote. She continued to appear in concert throughout the world until her mid-sixties. She can be heard as Nedda in Pagliacci (Naxos 8.110258).

Parisian-born Henri Legay (1920-1992) won first prize at the Conservatoire in 1947 but began his career singing in musical shows before making his operatic début in Brussels in 1950. He made his first major Parisian appearance as Gérald (Lakmé) in April 1952. His career was predominately a French-based one and centred at the Opéra-Comique and the provincial theatres, where he sang a wide range of rôles including Nadir (Les pêcheurs de perles), Julien (Louise), Wilhelm Meister (Mignon), Alfredo (La traviata), and the title parts in Werther, Gounod's Faust, and Les contes d'Hoffmann. As a composer he is credited with over three hundred songs. His recordings include Le Roi d'Ys, Les pêcheurs de perles and Maurouf. He retired during the 1970s.

Jean Borthayre (1901-1984) was born near Mauleon near the Spanish border and spent his youth as a shepherd in the Basque area. He was rejected by the Conservatoire in the French capital in 1926 but continued his vocal studies, working in a variety of different jobs, including that of Parisian taxi-driver. In 1934 he appeared at the Casino de Paris singing Basque songs, alongside Tino Rossi. The outbreak of war in 1939 interrupted Borthayre honouring a contract with the Opéra in Algiers. He appeared in small parts at Toulouse in 1941 and later sang in Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille and Strasbourg. He enjoyed his first significant success singing Verdi at Strasbourg in 1946. He first sang at the Opéra-Comique in 1951, making his debut in Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles. His large repertoire included Herod (Hérodiade), Rigoletto, and the major Verdi baritone rôles, in addition to those of the French repertoire. He retired at the age of seventy to Montmorency where he died aged 83.

Michel Dens (1911-2000) was one of nine children born in Roubaix. At the age of seven he began violin studies but some years later began vocal training at the local conservatoire. Following an audition at Lille Opéra in 1936 with an engagement as second baritone, he was later engaged in Bordeaux, followed by Grenoble where he became the first baritone of the Opéra-Comique. Taken prisoner in 1940, he was held in Germany, but succeeded in escaping and joining the Toulouse Company (1942). His Parisian début in June 1947 was as Albert in Werther, followed by Rigoletto, Iago, Valentin (Faust), Athanæl (Thaïs) and Rossini's Figaro. His rôles at the Opéra-Comique included Escamillo, Frederic (Lakmé), Lescaut, Ourrias (Mireille) and Zurga (Les pêcheurs de perles). From 1951 Dens began to appear more regularly in the field of opérette to which his high bariton-martin voice was ideally suited. He also sang in North Africa, Canada and Switzerland in addition to all the major French operatic venues. He continued to appear until his late seventies, eventually dying at the age of 89. A prolific recording artist, Dens appeared in many operatic and operetta recordings.

René Herent (1897-1966) made his début as Guillot de Morfontaine in 1918 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris and would remain a member of that company for over forty years. He sang a wide range of second tenor parts, always displaying excellent taste allied to an admirable stage presence.

Liliane Berton (born 1924) made her début at the Opéra-Comique in 1952 and later became one of the leading soubrettes of her generation. She sang the rôle of Sister Constance in the French première of Poulenc's Les dialogues des carmélites in 1957 which she later recorded. She was equally adept in the field of operetta, appearing with Michel Dens on many occasions.

Pierre Monteux (1875-1964) was Parisian born and studied at that city's Conservatoire from the age of nine, eventually sharing first prize for his violin playing with Jacques Thibaud in 1896. He then changed to the viola and played in the Opéra-Comique Orchestra. He conducted for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes from 1911 to 1914, when he gave the première of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé (1912) Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps and Debussy's Jeux (both 1913). Monteux first conducted in London in 1913 and made his New York début in November 1917 and conducted French operas for the following two seasons. He was musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1920-24) and associate director of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam (1924-34) in addition to founding the Paris Symphony Orchestra, which he directed from 1929 until 1938. He was also conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (1936-52). He returned to the Metropolitan in New York in 1953 for three seasons. At the age of 84 Monteux was appointed chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, stipulating a 25-year contract. He also held conducting classes at his home in Hancock, Maine, from 1941 until his death. He was universally respected and loved by orchestral musicians the world over, as well as being a superb interpreter of French, German and Russian music. He left a vast legacy of recordings but only three operas, one being this Manon.

Charles Munch (1891-1968) was born in Strasbourg, then part of Germany. He studied the violin in his native city before moving to Paris. He became a French citizen after 1918 and later taught his instrument and played in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra until 1929. His conducting career began in 1932, when he directed a number of orchestras in the Parisian capital until appointed to the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in 1938, a position he held until 1946. Munch's American début in 1946 eventually led to him succeeding Koussevitzky as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1949. His thirteen-year tenure with this orchestra included the first-ever visit by an American ensemble to the Soviet Union in 1956. In 1967 he was appointed conductor of the newly formed Orchestre de Paris but died in the United States while on tour with them. A noted conductor of French music, he also was highly rated in German repertoire as well.

Malcolm Walker

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Synopsis

Act I

[CD 1 / Track 2] The Prélude includes festive music from the Cours de Reine in Paris, the song of the soldiers taking Manon to Le Havre for transportation and the confession by Des Grieux of his love for Manon.

[1/3] 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.

[1/4] 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.

[1/5] 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.

[1/6] Manon arrives, excited at her journey, almost forgetting that she was on the way to a convent.

[1/7] There is some commotion as the travellers prepare to leave again. Lescaut goes to seek Manon's luggage, leaving her alone for a moment.

[1/8] 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.

[1/9] Lescaut returns, as Guillot withdraws. His friends suggest gaming, and, pleading important business, he leaves Manon, advising her how to behave.

[1/10] 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.

[1/11] Des Grieux comes out from the inn. He is at once captivated by Manon.

[1/12] He asks her name. She tells him that she is intended for a convent, but he swears he will never allow it.

[1/13] 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

[1/14] 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.

[1/15] 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.

[1/16] Lescaut, seemingly satisfied by the letter Des Grieux has written, leaves with his companion. Des Grieux, reassured of Manon's love for him, goes to post his letter.

[1/17] Manon is left alone to muse on her situation, her love for Des Grieux, but 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.

[1/18] 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 yet was not so without her. 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

[2/1] A Minuet is heard.

[2/2] 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.

[2/3] 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.

[2/4] The crowd admires the elegance of the women they see, including Manon, who must at least be a duchess, they think.

[2/5] 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.

[2/6] To the music of a gavotte Manon resolves to profit from her beauty and youth.

[2/7] 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.

[2/8] 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.

[2/9] Guillot tells De Brétigny that he has engaged the ballet for Manon. The general opinion is that the expense will be ruinous.

[2/10] 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

[2/11] 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.

[2/12] 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.

[2/13] Alone, Des Grieux admits that he cannot forget Manon. He leaves for another service.

[2/14] Manon enters.

[2/15] Hearing the sounds of the Magnificat, she prays for forgiveness.

[2/16] 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.

[2/17] 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

[2/18] 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.]

[2/19] 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.

[2/20] 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.

[2/21] 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.

[2/22] 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

[3/1] 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.

[3/2] 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.

[3/3] 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

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Jules Massenet (1842-1912): Manon
1955, unknown location of venue (CD 1 Track 1)
30 April – 22 June 1955 (Manon), Salle de la Mutualité, Paris
First released on RCA Victor SRL-12-28 ("Showcase in Sound") (CD 1 Track 1)
HMV ALP 1394 through 1397 (Manon)

Appendix:

Claude Debussy: La damoiselle élue
(Text: Dante Gabriele Rossetti; French translation by Gabriel Sarrazin)
Recorded 11 April 1955 in Symphony Hall. First issued on RCA Victor LM-1907

Hector Berlioz: Les nuits d'été
(Text: Théophile Gautier)
Recorded 12-13 April 1955 in Symphony Hall. First issued on RCA Victor LM-1907

 


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