Admirers of Massenet’s most famous opera may be excused for feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the number of historic issues that are before us. Earlier this year I reviewed the English-language excerpts with Dame Maggie Teyte and Heddle Nash (Dutton, 7/97); now comes this historic set, the first complete recording of Manon, and one of the first in Ward Marston’s own CD series.
In his producer’s note, Marston asks us to try and listen “without distraction”, and he suggests that the difficult task of getting through a whole opera in an acoustical recording will recede to reveal “a charming and vibrant performance”. With the second opinion there can be no argument; here is the
The history surrounding this Pathe set is interesting. It was the last of a series of French operas that the firm recorded complete, beginning in 1911. The First World War had interrupted the project, but not before Pathe had issued the first composed-for-disc opera: Jean Nougues’s Les Freres Danilo. It was inevitable that Pathe should have chosen Fanny Heldy for the title-role. She was the star soprano in Paris for over two decades, and although her personality on record has little of the charm of her successor, Germaine Feraldy, nor the sensual authority of Ninon Vallin, her performance, as John Santoro writes in his notes with the CDs (there is no libretto), is remarkable for its fidelity to the composer’s markings. She is at her best in the duets and ensemble passages. When the big arias come along she sounds a trifle dull; this is perhaps partly the fault of the recording process, but when she sings “Je ne suis que faiblesse et fragilite” there is a stridency that remains through “Adieu, notre petite table”.
It is the performance of Jean Marny as Des Grieux that is more arresting. No one sings like this now. The delicacy of his phrasing, the forward diction, the sense of personality are all there. I would guess that his was a voice treated more kindly by the acoustic process, but he doesn’t seem to have been rated very highly at the time; his recordings were few, though Santoro says his career was long and distinguished – a bit more biographical material on the artists would have been welcome. Leon Ponzio as Lescaut impresses with his personality, though his voice has more of a beat in it.
Henri Busser at the conductor’s desk has every claim to authenticity. He knew Massenet well and often worked with him. In his published diaries (De Pelleas aux Indes Galantes) Busser recalls the composer at a rehearsal at the Opera-Comique, and his astonishing youthfulness and liveliness. Sadly, Busser has no comment on this recording, though it is one of those delightful little historic coincidences that the first time Busser conducted Manon, on December 27th, 1903, the composer was in the audience and came backstage to congratulate him and the Des Grieux that night was the tenor, Van Dyke, who had created the role of Werther in 1892. Busser also notes that Massenet was “enchanted” by Leon Beyle, the heroic tenor who had a long career at both the Opera and Opera-Comique. In the appendix on the second CD of this set we hear Beyle in duets with Marguerite Carre (wife of the director of the Opera-Comique) and the vivacious Lucette Korsoff. There is also Georgette Brejean-Silver’s recording of the Fabliau, “Oui, dans les bois” which Massenet composed specially for her. All this is rich, fascinating study material for anyone with a serious interest in Massenet and in the French style in general. The set can only be recommended to specialists and those with a keen ear for historic recordings, and they will all find it an entrancing experience.'