Hurrah for EMI! It is the last remaining major company to take seriously the recording of mainstream operas, that is with a policy based on artistic integrity, not on making a quick buck. Gheorghiu and Alagna, two artists of genuine repute, are once again linked with Pappano, who has surely become Europe’s leading interpreter of opera among the younger generation of conductors, one who – as last month’s interview proved – considers his work, and in particular Manon, to be worth close study with a view to recording it. Then EMI has had the good sense to build its set around his own company at La Monnaie, a Francophone group of singers who give an authentic flavour to their work that non-French-speaking performers cannot hope to match. The piece is given absolutely complete, including the ballet (splendidly played), although I wish room had been found for Gheorghiu to record the Fabliau, alternative to the Gavotte, as an appendix.
Nothing of the myriad character of Massenet’s popular work escapes Pappano’s eye and ear. He has a near-perfect idea of how to pace the score (just a few tempos shade toward Adagio when they are marked Andante, the Gavotte, for instance), and he persuades his orchestra and chorus to play and sing with the utmost respect for pertinent detail, so important in Massenet, and to follow, as do the soloists, the many expressive markings demanded by the composer. Listen to the little female chorus of adoring admirers at St Sulpice, or the tenor card-sharpers in Act 4 (which has just the life it needs as a whole), and you will hear a sound that is exactly right in timbre and an execution precise in articulation, two examples of the attention to detail evident everywhere. Then the big scenes at Amiens and the Cours-la-Reine have just the elan and spirit called for. Plasson, on the rival EMI set, made in Toulouse 18 years ago, is almost but not quite as convincing.
Gheorghiu’s is a Manon to savour in practically every respect. Suitably coquettish in her first solo, she turns ruminative, plangent for her second, ‘Voyons, Manon’. The farewell to her little table, a solo so many famous sopranos, most notably Callas, have sung out of context, is inward and pensive, tone subtly shaded with the ‘larmes dans la voix’ so admired in native French singers. To the Gavotte and the recitative preceding it, Gheorghiu brings the outward aplomb and, in the second verse (in the minor), the hint of sadness required. The prayer at St Sulpice has all the urgency and the sense of apprehension as to how Des Grieux, now a servant of the church, will respond to her. Once she reaches him, ‘N’est-ce plus ma main’ could hardly be more seductive. And the Act 4 solo, in the gambling room at Hotel Transylvanie, is as nervously fevered in its love of gambling as it should be.
Throughout these solos, Gheorghiu prudently follows Massenet’s scrupulous instructions as to dynamics and phrasing with unforgettable results, not to mention the sheer glory of her singing as such, outclassing her compatriot, the sensitive Ileana Cotrubas, who recorded the role for Plasson too late in her career.
If Alagna doesn’t quite equal his wife’s example, he is a suitably ardent, French- sounding Des Grieux, always suggesting the Chevalier’s obsessive love for his ‘Sphinx etonnant’. He is rightly overwhelmed by his first sight of Manon, and carries her off to Paris with romantic verve. The Dream, finely phrased as it is, hasn’t quite the individuality that Ansseau, Heddle Nash (in the famous pre-war broadcast now on Dutton, 12/96) or Gedda and others, brought to it, mainly because his tone has become a shade occluded. At St Sulpice, it rings out more truly. ‘Ah fuyez, douce image’ begins in nicely reflective fashion and the B flat climaxes are suitably impassioned. In most respects he surpasses the ageing Kraus for Plasson, even when he isn’t quite as elegant in manner.
Earle Patriarco, a young American baritone new to me, proves an excellent Lescaut, keen with the text and properly cynical in manner. His first solo, at Amiens, begins the real action with theatrical flair. ‘A quoi bon l’economie’ is neat, with the ‘O Rosalinde’ section rightly sentimental, as Massenet asks it to be. His French is faultless. Still better is Jose van Dam as Le Comte (he also sang the part for Plasson), words shaped so meaningfully onto tone, his spoken contribution faultlessly timed. His scene with Manon at the Cours-la-Reine, one of the most subtly written in the whole work, is done intimately, quietly, just as is intended. His appeal to his son to abandon the church and marry ‘quelque brave fille’ is sung with peerless line and great imagination. Rivenq’s De Bretigny is characterful, but his voice is too much like Patriarco’s. Ragon is suitably nasty as the old roue, Guillot, and he makes the most of the text.
All the smaller parts are enthusiastically taken, small decorations on a masterly interpretation. Given an exemplary recording in terms of balance and presence, this is a set about as good as you’re likely to get today (or maybe any day) of this adorable piece, enhanced by Rodney Milnes’s illuminating and enthusiastic notes in the booklet.
I have a love and affection for the 1956 EMI set with Victoria de los Angeles’s nonpareil of a Manon and Monteux as her elegant conductor (11/56), but the work is cut, the recording is dated (it is soon to be reissued by Testament). It will continue to have an honoured place on my shelves; so will the ancient 1928-29 Columbia set now on Malibran, with Feraldy and Rogatchewsky as the most attractive of lovers, but this new version is the one – I hope – to introduce a new generation to a work of which Beecham declared: ‘I would give up all the Brandenburgs for Manon and would think that I had profited by the exchange.'