, April 2008
Massenet’s Manon has done rather well on disc. In addition to some interesting modern performances - Angela Gheorgiu, Renee Fleming, Ileana Cotrubas, Beverly Sills - the opera has appeared in a number of fascinating historic issues. Fanny Heldy, the reigning Opéra Comique soprano, recorded it in 1911, then Germaine Féraldy recorded in 1928. Heddle Nash and Maggie Teyte recorded excerpts in English (Dutton CDLX 7023) and the Opéra Comique returned to it in 1955 with Pierre Monteux conducting and Victoria de Los Angeles in the title role.
This 1955 recording has had various incarnations on CD and has just been re-issued by Naxos, coupled with de Los Angeles’s 1955 recordings with Charles Munch of Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Été and Debussy’s La Demoiselle Élue.
Of the historic recordings mentioned above, this 1955 one is probably the only one which could be listened to on a regular basis without too much excuse required for its recorded sound. The set was recorded in good mono and I could imagine living with this recording. Whilst the sound-image is at times rather lively and aggressive - particularly in the ensemble scenes - the results are completely acceptable.
De Los Angeles makes an enchanting Manon. She does not have the light, bright timbre and effortless top which some French sopranos of the past have brought to the role. But she does have great charm, musicality and a plangency. You get the feeling that even in the innocent, girlish and charming exchanges, there is something deeper in Manon. Indeed, in the opening scene her attempts at girlishness can veer towards the embarrassingly coy. When it comes to the more dramatic episodes de Los Angeles’s tone quality and empathy bring real feeling to the part. She makes you care and brings out Manon’s dilemma. Thanks to her special qualities, Manon is not just some flighty little girl.
Of course, de Los Angeles is not perfect. Bright high coloratura is not her forte but she copes very well, and I would far rather have a moving Manon – as here - than one who is simply bright and brittle.
Whilst she might be seen as the star of this recording, in many ways the centre of attention is the ensemble of the Opéra Comique. This set belongs to that wonderful group of 1950s recordings where we catch the final flowering of the ensemble before internationalisation blunted its edges. This does not mean that every role is perfectly sung, but you do feel part of a company whose members are fully integrated into both the composer’s style and the dramatic needs of the piece.
The ensemble also has the immense advantage that every role sounds like a distinctive character, giving an advantage over more modern recordings where similar sounding, under-characterised voices leave you scrabbling for the libretto to check who is singing.
The cast has a notable depth of experience, René Herent made his debut as Guillot in 1918. And of course Monteux himself - in his eighties when the recording was made - played in the Opéra Comique Orchestra and performed Manon while the composer was still alive.
Whilst tradition can often lapse into schlamperei, here under Monteux’s watchful eye the Opéra Comique delivers a performance which is diamond-sharp. They sing, and speak, in idiomatic French, delivering Massenet’s music with an acuteness and avoidance of sentimentality which sets off the performances of the principals. The overall diction is superb and the opera can be followed easily by anyone with half decent French.
Henri Le Gay is, perhaps, a little light weight for Des Grieux; in fact the role was intended for Jussi Björling, but he refused. Le Gay is engaging and youthful sounding - the singer was 35 when the recording was made. He is wonderfully refined and if he does not quite have the power for the really big moments, his performance is so finely judged that you forgive him knowing that there are few tenors around that could do as well today … and certainly not in such lovely French.
The other principals are equally impressive and similarly nuanced. Michel Dens’s Lescaut mixes a lovely swagger with great charm. This is a character that we can easily love and hate. Jean Vieuille is suitably worldly as De Bretigny and Jean Borthayre is warm and personable as Des Grieux’s father, avoiding making him too much the villain.
Neither the chorus nor the orchestra are perfect, but they do not particularly let the side down and contribute immensely to the general style of the performance.
At a little over 160 minutes, Manon has to spread over three CDs to avoid awkward side-breaks. Naxos have filled the last CD with two more of de Los Angeles’s recordings of French music, Debussy’s La Demoiselle Élue and Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été. Both recordings date from around the same time as Manon and de Los Angeles is finely accompanied by Charles Munch. Whilst neither recording would be at the top of my list the singing is charming and ravishing.
This set is essential listening for anyone who wants to get the feel for what Manon sounded like at the Opéra Comique. It is a precious record of a vanished performance style and has the great advantage of a ravishing Manon from de Los Angeles.