Ravel L'Heure espagnole
These recordings from French EMI are arranged in two series – those emanating from the Paris Opera and Opera-Comique. The CD jewel-boxes bear handsome photographs of details from the nineteenth-century rococo facades of the Palais Garnier (Opera) and the Salle Favart (Opera-Comique). It is a generally held, received opinion that the decline of true French vocal style set in around the 1940s and that 'French' voices in some way disappeared. The truth is much more complicated – it was the decline in fashion for French opera and song and the long periods of inactivity at both houses in Paris, and the consequent lack of interest shown by recording companies, that denied many French singers of the 1940s, until the 1980s, an international platform.
In Paris, French Radio remained faithful to the repertoire and to native artists, so there are many names which are little known outside France who, nevertheless, were obviously great stylists. Some have appeared in the series of light operas on the Gaite Lyrique label, on recordings taken from the radio archives, and these EMI releases remind us of a number of great stars from before the Second World War, as well as some of the artists who emerged during the 1940s.
In the 1930s in Paris, Raoul Jobin and Jose Luccioni were the two great opera matinee-idols. Jobin was a French Canadian, made his debut in 1930 and was soon singing at both the Opera, as Faust, Lohengrin and Raoul in Les huguenots, and at the Opera-Comique, where he was a favourite Hoffmann and Don Jose. Luccioni was from Marseilles and had the more heroic voice; his Don Jose was also heard at the Salle Favart (he sang the role over 300 times in his career). Of the recordings reissued here, the earliest is Samson et Dalila. The sound is of pre-war quality, and varies considerably from one 78rpm side to another. Luccioni was still in superb voice and it is easy to understand why he was such a favourite; the full tone, passionate delivery and total commitment to his role are splendid. His partners are both veterans of performances of the period: Bouvier's career was cut short when she was stricken with polio, but her luscious voice makes her a convincing if somewhat alarmingly formidable seductress; Paul Cabanel was nearing 60, yet his voice is of the old school – firm and authoritative. This is only a recommendation as a pure piece of historic evidence.
The two recordings that feature Jobin find him perhaps just too late in his career. He is heard to better advantage as Hoffmann, but his years at the Metropolitan (throughout the German occupation) obviously took their toll, when he sang roles that were too heavy for him in such a huge theatre. Cluytens was to conduct the later HMV internationally cast Hoffmann in 1965 (12/89 – nla) featuring such collectors' 'items' as Schwarzkopf's Giulietta. However, the splendour of this earlier version is the authenticity of the vocal style and the diction of such stalwarts of the Opera-Comique ensemble as Louis Musy, Roger Bourdin, Fanely Revoil (better known as an operetta singer) and, luxurious casting, Camille Maurane in the small part of Hermann.
The three heroines are well inside their roles, but are afflicted with a little strain in the higher-lying passages. Renee Doria sang all these parts later in her career – when this recording was made she was just at the outset, having made her debut in Paris in 1944. Her Olympia is strong on the staccato notes but a bit fragile in the long phrases – this doll broke quite easily, one imagines. In the same act, Andre Pernet, a great figure from pre-war Paris (he created Shylock in Hahn's Le Marchand de Venise and the title-role in Enescu's Oedipe), is a superb Coppelius. In the Venice act, Vina Bovy is dramatically convincing as Giulietta, but hasn't much vocal sheen left (she made her debut in 1919). Geori Boue, the Antonia, is one of the great figures from French post-war opera, but I feel that Giulietta would have been her role ideally. As for Jobin, despite some strain, he makes a convincing poet. Although there is such strong competition on CD where Hoffmann is concerned – the later Cluytens, Cambreling (EMI, 12/88 – nla), Tate (Philips, 11/92), Bonynge (my favourite – Decca, 11/86) – this historic version is really essential listening for a sense of style if the work absorbs you.
Jobin gives Don Jose a good try, although his great days were obviously past when this recording was made in 1950. It is astonishing to compare the sound of the Carmen with the Samson, recorded only four years before in the same venue (Theatre des Champs-Elysees, Paris). Modern techniques had made their mark. Solange Michel presents a Carmen of the old school. Her voice is really more contralto in quality and her diction suggests not so much a sensual gipsy as an actress at the Comedie-Francaise. Nevertheless, there is something fascinating and endearing about her portrayal. One simply could not find anyone today who sounds like her – and yet she was the favourite Carmen at the Opera-Comique, where she sang the role at the 2, 500th performance there and went on to notch up 500 of her own! Michel Dens is a swaggering Escamillo and Martha Angelici a convincing Michaela. Of course, with such heavy competition where Carmen on CD is concerned, this set is valuable principally as a document of the opera's performing tradition.
The best known of all the sets here is Faust, for unlike the others it has an international cast – the much admired trio of Gedda, los Angeles and Christoff. The recording was made in the Palais de la Mutualite in Paris, and the sound is a lot clearer than that on the earlier Champs-Elysees productions. The same singers recorded the work again, in stereo, only five years later (EMI, 7/83). There is not a lot to choose between the two: Christoff is slightly more restrained in the later version, Gedda and los Angeles in marginally fresher voice on the mono set. Solange Michel, taking a break from her endless Carmens, is Marthe on the 1953 recording, Rita Gorr on the 1958 – the main gain in the latter is the charming Siebel of Liliane Berton.
Les pecheurs de perles is the latest of the recordings under review and was also taped in the Palais de la Mutualite, in 1954. It is a beautiful performance of this much-recorded, but comparatively rarely staged work. Angelici and Dens as Leila and Zurga are joined by the stylish and beautifully sung Nadir of Henri Legay. Despite its age, this must still be a strong contender as the choice for Les pecheurs.
The best is saved for last – the 1952
However, the main reason for hearing on VAI the earlier, historic, recording, made – or so it is claimed – under the supervision of the composer, is the hilarious performance of Gonzalve sung by the great Louis Arnoult. It must have been a labour of love on the part of Barton Wimble, who has remastered this historic set from 78s, but the sound is very remote. The unfortunately named Georges Truc keeps the whole thing together.
Finally, what is there to say of Andre Cluytens, who conducts all but one of the historic EMI issues? In a fascinating essay printed in each of the booklets (which have marvellous recording-session photographs) Michel Beretti outlines the history of the ''Reunion des Theatres Lyriques Nationaux'', and the repertory system they operated at the time that Cluytens was Director of the Opera-Comique, when most of these recordings were made. ''Delicate sonorities . . . as well as the heady flourish'' is how Beretti describes Cluytens's style; it might sum up the essence of French opera. R1 '9509146'