Manon – Opera in five acts to a libretto by Henri Meilhac & Philippe Gille after Abbé Prévost’s novel L’Histoire de Manon Lescaut
Les nuits d’été
La damoiselle élue
Manon Lescaut – Victoria de los Angeles
Chevalier Des Grieux – Henri Legay
Comte Des Grieux – Jean Borthayre
Lescaut – Michel Dens
Guillot de Morfontaine – René Herent
De Brétigny – Jean Vieuille
Pousette – Liliane Berton
Javotte – Raymonde Notti
Rosette – Marthe Serres
Chorus & Orchestra of the Théâtre de l’Opéra-Comique
Recorded 30 April-22 June 1955 in Salle de la Mutualité, Paris
Victoria de los Angeles (soprano) [Berlioz & Debussy]
Carol Smith (mezzo-soprano) & Radcliffe Choral Society [Debussy]
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Charles Munch [Berlioz & Debussy]
Recorded 11-13 April 1955 in Symphony Hall, Boston
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: April 2008
CD No: NAXOS HISTORICAL
8.111268-70 (3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 35 minutes
Courtesy of Mark Obert-Thorn, this is Naxos Historical’s re-mastering of HMV’s classic 1955 mono recording of Massenet’s opera “Manon” under the masterful baton of Pierre Monteux who on the first track of disc 1 is heard (in English) briefly introducing the work.
The merits of this recording are well known and have been lauded in prose often enough over the last 50 years. In mono sound of now superb quality and depth, the recording sounds as vibrant as it ever did, and as is often the case with mono the sound favours the voices extremely well.
Monteux had a largely French cast and so the performance remains one of the most idiomatic available, and the interpreters of all the principal and supportive roles all have an individuality of utterance that later recordings simply cannot hold a candle to. Monteux does not overdo the romanticism of opera and under his assured direction Massenet’s setting simply fizzes along, and is all the more charming for it. Every tempo seems perfectly judged and wedded to a sure sense of theatre. Were performances like this possible today then the comparative neglect of “Manon” would be harder to understand.
At the centre of this recording is Victoria de los Angeles’s wonderful Manon. She is here caught at her vocal best, with the girl’s more reflective and innocent facets contrasting superbly with the corrupted and driven young woman of later in the story. Perhaps she overdoes the girlishness at her first appearance, but from thence on she never puts a foot wrong. She captures to perfection the pathos of Manon as her life of domestic bliss starts to unravel in the early sections of Act Two, and her appearance at the cloister of St Sulpice makes it the pivotal scene it should be. She is also excellent is dialogue, as indeed is the remainder of the French cast. This is one of de los Angeles’s best commercial recordings.
Henri Legay’s elegant and light voice conjures up perfectly an infatuated young man, hopelessly unable to resist the enchantments of his beloved. He also manages to evince the Chevalier’s weakness when confronted by his stern father. He also sings well in St Sulpice, turning in an excellent account of ‘Ah! Fuyez, douce image’. Nowadays this role would probably be given to a heavier tenor, but Legay’s singing fits the l’Opéra-Comique origins of the work, and should be obligatory listening to all young tenors contemplating taking on the part. It was a surprise to re-encounter Legay’s assumption and find it so much better than in recollection.
Michel Dens is a warm-toned genial and young Lescaut; exuding bonhomie this Lescaut is evidently a carefree young buck who just likes good company, card-games and drink. He lights up the sound-stage at his every appearance, and Jean Borthayre provides great contrast as an authoritative and implacable Count. René Herent also captures the apparent ridiculousness but underlying vindictiveness of Guillot de Morfontaine in an interpretation of nuance and colour. His trio of female hangers-on is a nicely homogenous bunch, too.
However, the performance belongs to de los Angeles, the conductor and the orchestra. The latter is on splendid form, the musicians responding unerringly to the various changes of mood and pace, and all the felicities of Massenet’s scoring come alive with sweep, glitter and underlying tension. It is amazing how, in the days before acoustics on recordings could be manipulated electronically, each of the various settings appears to have its own distinctive soundworld: this says much for both Massenet and Monteux.
This is a classic recording in every sense and one that every collector should have on the shelf. And there is a bonus for fans of Victoria de los Angeles, for the third compact disc also contains performances of Berlioz’s “Les nuits d’été” and Debussy’s “La damoiselle élue” in very recommendable readings conducted by Charles Munch.