Pathé Opera Series
Volume 5

Jean Nouguès (1875-1932)

Les Frères Danilo

Recorded in 1912/1913


Featuring Henri Albers


Opera in two acts
Recorded in sixteen parts


MyriaMarguerite Mérentié
TiarkoAlfred Maguenat
NinoEdmond Tirmont
L’AugusteHenri Albers
La TeigneMme Delrys
Le DocteurPierre Dupré


Jean Nouguès, conductor

Producer: John Humbley

Audio Conservation: Ward Marston

Photographs: Luc Bourrousse, Roger Gross, and Charles Mintzer

Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi

Marston would like to thank Daniel Barolsky, Richard Bebb, Samuel Bolshoi, Luc Bourrousse, Peter Lack, and Christian Zwarg for their help in the production of Les Frères Danilo.

Les Frères Danilo is something of an anomaly in the pioneering Pathé Opéra series (Le Théâtre chez soi). Starting in 1911 with the all-time favorites of Carmen and Faust, Pathé pursued a policy of recording popular operas from both the French and Italian repertoire of the nineteenth century, works which regularly brought in the crowds to the main Parisian and provincial opera houses. What did well in the theater was doubtless thought a good bet to launch the first series of complete operas ever marketed in France. Les Frères Danilo represents a further innovation. Pathé Frères must have commissioned Jean Nouguès, one of the most popular opera composers of the day, to write an opera especially for the gramophone. No evidence has been found of this opera having been put on in Paris or in provincial theaters; moreover, none of the public libraries in Paris holds a score, and the only copy of the libretto, conserved at the Bibliothèque nationale, turns out to be published by Pathé Frères themselves.

Though little appears to have been spent on publicity, efforts were obviously made to secure the services of a well-known composer and good singers. By 1912, Jean Nouguès was at the height of his fame. Born Jean-Charles Nouguès in Bordeaux on 26 April 1875 (he died in Paris 28 August 1932), the composer came from a wealthy family and had little formal musical training. His first work to attract public attention was the incidental music to the play La Mort de Tintagiles, based on a book by Maurice Maeterlinck. The play was first produced in 1905 at the Théâtre des Mathurins in Paris. The music attracted some praise: Musica, in April 1906, mentions the most favorable impression produced by the music in spite of difficult material conditions (the orchestra was hidden behind an asbestos screen!) It was “impetuous, tender, caressing, melodious, tragically passionate, the skillfully crafted score is one of the most notable of young composers of the modern school.” A good part of the success was attributed to the acting of the charismatic Georgette Leblanc in the leading role of Ygraine.

Nouguès’s real success came with Quo Vadis?, an opera based on Henryk Sienkiewicz’s then popular novel, set in Nero’s Rome. It was premiered at the Nice Opera in 1909 and brought to Paris at the Théâtre Municipale de la Gaîté Lyrique in the same year. There it caused a sensation. Musica critic Félicien Grétry declared it was equal only to the furore of the first performance of Cavalleria Rusticana a decade and a half earlier. This perceptive observer noted that while most of the critics were hostile, others found something to praise, notably Reynaldo Hahn and Francis Casadesus. The success of Quo Vadis? was such that Le Théâtre devoted a lavish article in its January 1910 issue and offered some explanation for its extraordinary success. One intriguing reason given was the skill of the singers: “ Since Quo Vadis? receives a masterful interpretation in Mary [sic] Lafargue-Lygie, Cécile Thévenet-Poppée, Aline Vallandri-Eunice, and Jean Perrier-Chilon it is easy to understand why Nouguès and the theater have been so successful.” (Le Théâtre 1910, pp. 15-22). Musica details over 100 performances of Quo Vadis? at the Gaîté Lyrique in the 1909-1910 season, and confirms the opinion given in Le Théâtre concerning the singers: “M. Perrier is admirable... M. Marvini, whose voice is of outstanding beauty was perfect in the role of Saint Peter the apostle; Mme Vallandri was the prettiest, most touching, best sung Eunices...”

1909 was certainly Nouguès’s year of glory. Apart from Quo Vadis? another of his operas, Chiquito, was produced at the Opéra-Comique. This opera, with its Basque setting, also boasted a prestigious cast: Fernand Francell sang the title role, ably supported by Marguerite Carré and Félix Vieuille. The work ran to 11 performances, and was rated one of the more successful creations of the season, though as much for the quality of the interpretation and staging as for the music itself, which was characterized as being more effective than original (shades of Massenet and Gounod were recognized). None of this opera seems to have survived on contemporary recordings.

1912, the year work is thought to have started on Les Frères Danilo, Nouguès was fêted in La Danseuse de Pompéï at the Opéra-Comique with a cast featuring the same leading singers as Chiquito three years earlier, and though it notched up 17 performances, it was never restaged. He also had another opera, L’Aigle, produced for the first time in Rouen in the same year. This opera, according to Locard, crossed the Channel during the First World War, and was presented to the British public as The French Eagle.

By the time Danilo was issued, Nouguès may well have been suffering from overexposure. The critic Edmond Stoullig wrote in 1914 on the première of La Vendetta (Gaîté Lyrique) that he thought Nouguès would compose better if he composed less, far less! Nevertheless, he went on composing, moving into operetta in the 1920s, though without the success of his prewar offerings.

Les Frères Danilo is set in a circus, a story of traveling tumblers. Tiarko (Maguenat in the set) and Nino (Tirmont) are brothers (possibly half brothers), both acrobats, the elder born in Bohemia, dark and brooding, the younger born in Italy, dark and impetuous. Both are in love with a girl, Myria (Mérentié), who was adopted by the traveling mummers. At the beginning of the opera, Myria has transferred her affections from the elder to the younger brother, to the former’s chagrin. The lovers plot their escape and dream of a life of freedom. Both brothers are advised by the rather tired father figure of L’Auguste (Albers), who pleads for reason, and who warns them both of the dangers of the wily woman they love. There ensues a gypsy dance in the light of the fire (Myria obviously has something of Carmen in her) and, when the troupe has retired for the night, a conventional love duet, in which Myria overcomes Nino’s scruples and persuades him to flee. Tiarko has been listening in the shadows; he vows to thwart the lovers’ plans. The second act opens on a circus performance. Myria, in the middle of her horseback act, gives Nino last-minute instructions about their escape, and Tiarko angrily confronts Nino, pulling out all the stops of the moral blackmail register. Nino persists and Tiarko, already late for his act, mounts the trapeze ... and falls! L’Auguste comes into his own, calls a doctor, shepherds the anxious circus folk, and reassures the audience, “the show must go on.” This ultimate blackmail does it. Tiarko will live, though he will never again mount the trapeze. Everything is now in the hands of the younger brother. He sternly tells Myria to leave, and bounds onto the circus rink. The show does indeed go on.

The circus setting is hardly original. Not only was Pagliacci (in the form of Paillasse) well known in France, though perhaps better in the provinces than in Paris itself, Louis Ganne’s operetta Les Saltimbanques of 1900 was one of the most popular pieces of the repertoire at the beginning of the century. Like Les Frères Danilo, it features a heroine adopted into the circus troupe as a child who causes havoc on reaching womanhood. In 1908, the Opéra-Comique put on the two-act opera Le Clown, written by Isaac de Camondo, better known as the chairman of the Société des amis de l’Opéra than as a composer, and first performed at the Nouveau-Théâtre two years previously. Though it had a stellar cast, headed by none other than “Mlle Géraldine Farrar”, and included Mérentié in a minor role, critics noted that the circus theme had been done to death over the past 50 years, not just at the opera, but at the Théâtre des variétés. The cast includes a clown called Auguste, and it is possible that Nouguès, who must have been preparing Chiquito at that time, noted the theme for future reference.

The singers engaged by Pathé for Les Frères Danilo were the equal of those of the other sets devoted to the well known operas. Two of the singers were nearing the height of their powers, soprano Marguerite Mérentié and baritone Henri Albers, whereas the two other principals, tenor Edmond Tirmont and high baritone Alfred Maguenat, were just at the beginning of illustrious careers.

Marguerite Mérentié (1880– ?) had been an immediate success. She made a most promising début at the Opéra in 1905 in the role of Chimène in Le Cid, just one year after graduating from the Conservatoire national with first prize for singing and second prize for opera. She sang progressively heavier roles at the Opéra, especially in contemporary French works, notably Ariane in the Massenet opera of the same name in 1907, in which she “was well served by her remarkable dramatic and vocal means” as Stoulig relates, and Salammbô (“generous voice and remarkable talent”) in the same year. She became a noted Wagnerian, starting with Sieglinde in 1907, in which “she won the honors of the evening with her superb voice, her excellent emission, and harmonious gestures”, before going on to Brünnhilde and Isolde just before the First World War put a stop to opera in Paris and directly or indirectly to Mérentié’s own career. In the meantime, she had spent a few years at the Opéra-Comique, singing notably Carmen, which she recorded complete in 1911 (Marston Pathé Opéra series volume 3). In 1910 she sang Ariane in Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, and later that year her first Tosca (“un très franc succès”). In 1911 she created the title role in Albéric Magnard’s Bérénice, in which she was praised for “her magnificent voice, charm, emotion, and vocal stamina that cannot be too highly praised.”

Back at the Opéra in 1912 she again sang Chimène in Le Cid (“un nouveau et mérité succès”). Switching to the Gaîté Lyrique in April, she created the role of Naïl in Isidore de Lara’s opera of the same name, where she was “ardente et passionnée.” In 1913, she participated in the Opéra creation of Lalo’s Sortilège, where she is said to have sung with real power and accuracy. A month later she was singing Armide, then in March her first Brünnhilde in La Valkyrie, where she scored another “vif succès.”

Anglo-Saxon critics tend to regard her, as did Michael Scott, as not “of the front rank,” but this may well be simply because she was so busy in France that she had no incentive to sing elsewhere. In Paris, as some of the critical appraisals quoted above go to show, she was regarded with the highest esteem.

Mérentié left relatively few records: three sides for French Gramophone in 1907 (two fortunately from Massenet’s Ariane, a role she made her own) and 14 sides for Pathé in 1911/1912, not including the two complete operas.

Henri Albers (1866-1925) was the second well-established singer in the cast. He started his career in his native Holland, where he sang his first operatic role: Mephistopheles in Faust, establishing him as a baritone at ease in the roles of the basse chantante. The last years of the nineteenth century saw him active in various parts of the world, singing notably in North America in the company of Jean de Reszké, Nellie Melba, and Emma Calvé. From 1899 he sang at the Opéra-Comique, where he remained until his death, specializing in the heavier baritone roles, as well as those often sung by basses, such as Nilakantha in Lakmé. Though the Opéra-Comique was his home for over a quarter of a century, he sang periodically at the Monnaie in Brussels and at the Opéra in Paris, notably in Tannhäuser, Thaïs, and Thérèse. He participated in the creation of Les Cadeaux de noël at La Scala in 1917, from which an extract by another cast member, Mathilde Saïman, survives on record.

Albers recorded more extensively than the other singers of this set, though mostly for Pathé’s vertical cut issues, which explains why relatively little of his vast output has appeared on either LP or CD. He recorded not only wide-ranging extracts from his own stage repertoire, in both French and Dutch, but also a large number of song titles, ranging from the popular to the patriotic, passing through Schumann and Tchaikovski (in French) on the way. Albers is well represented in Le Théâtre chez soi series. Apart from Carmen, he also appears in La Favorite (Marston Pathé Opéra volume 2), Roméo et Juliette, and La Traviata .

Edmond Tirmont (1883–1985) was trained in singing at the Conservatoire national in Paris, graduating “brilliantly” (according to operetta expert Florian Bruyas) and started to appear in minor roles in both opera and operetta before 1910. The period before the First World War saw his most marked successes in both genres: he created the leading tenor part in the Paris première of Leo Fall’s The Dollar Princess in 1911 at the Scala (a Paris “music hall,” not the Milan opera house!) and the following year took on the title role in the Opéra-Comique’s revival of Méhul’s opera Joseph. Tirmont’s “ lovely voice” was part of the success of the operetta La Chaste Suzanne (Die keusche Suzanne, in English—inexplicably—The Girl in the Taxi) by Jean Gilbert, pseudonym for the Berlin composer Max Winterfeld, which ran to over 100 performances at the Apollo. His success in operetta was confirmed in the French version of Monckton’s The Quaker Girl, in which as Prince Carlo “he shot to the forefront with his exquisite dancing of the famous second act waltz and his interpretation of Morrison’s melody in the third act with his supple, well placed voice ” (Bruyas). He also appeared as Lorenty in the French creation of Manœuvre d’automne (Herbstmanöver) by Kalman in 1914.

Tirmont left a fair number of recordings from the various stages of his career, starting with Odeon in 1911, continuing on to French Gramophone of the same period. Here he recorded works that he had been involved in on stage, including interesting selections from Joseph, Lakmé from his Opéra-Comique repertoire, and the French version of Chocolate soldier on the operetta side. Other less obvious titles include Pierrot chante meurt, and La Dernière chanson (In the shadows). He appears in the minor role of Tybalt in the complete 1912 version of Roméo et Juliette (VAI Audio). After the First World War, the operetta side of Tirmont’s career is better represented on record. In 1922 he recorded for Gramophone a couple of extracts from La Fille de Madame Angot with the lovely Jenny Syril, a souvenir of the success they had won in that operetta in 1921 at the Gaîté Lyrique. For Pathé he recorded extracts from Dame en décolleté (1923-1924) by Maurice Yvain, and the French version of La Bayadère by Kalman (1925); Tirmont was a member of the creator cast of both. His last recordings date from the beginning of the 1930s, a series of floppy discs of the obscure firm Discolux, for whom he recorded extracts from such newer works as Coup de Roulis, Messager’s last operetta, premiered in Paris in 1928.

Alfred Maguenat, born around 1880, made his début at the Opéra-Comique in 1908, singing smaller roles, though quickly progressing to parts such as Escamillo in Carmen and Pelléas. He soon specialized in character and buffo roles, singing in Paris, the French provinces, and Monte Carlo. He appeared at the Opéra in the 1920s as Hérode in Hérodiade and as Rigoletto. He was perhaps better known abroad than equivalent French baritones of his generation, since he sang in Chicago from 1915 until 1919, and at Covent Garden in a wide variety of roles both before and after the First World War. His career extended into the 1930s, though by this stage he was more or less confined to character roles. He left a relatively small legacy of recordings, some Odéons, 11 sides for French Gramophone in 1912, including an extract from Quo Vadis?, which was reissued in Michael Scott’s Record of Singing 2. Towards the end of his career he also recorded some children’s and sailors’ songs for French Columbia.

©John Humbley, 2003


Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

La Traviata

Recorded in 1912

Featuring Henri Albers


Opera in four acts
Recorded in thirty-two parts


Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
Based on the novel La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas


Georges d’Orbel (Giorgio Germont)Henri Albers
Le Docteur Germont (Dr. Grenvil)Hippolyte Belhomme
Vicomte Émile (Gastone, Vicomte de Letorières)Gaston de Poumayrac
Le Marquis d’ObignyPierre Dupré
Rodolphe (Alfredo Germont)Maurizio Troselli
Violetta de Saint-Ys (Violetta Valéry)Jane Morlet
Clara (Flora Bervoix)Marie Gantéri
Annette (Annina)Marie Gantéri


Émile Archainbaud, conductoré

Producers: Scott Kessler and Ward Marston

Audio Conservation: Ward Marston

Photographs: Luc Barrousse, Roger Gross, John Humbley, and Charles Mintzer

Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi

Marston would like to thank Samuel Bolshoi, John Humbley, Peter Lack, and Kurt Nauck.


The reissue of the Pathé La Traviata on compact disc restores to circulation an important document known by most collectors only through an unlistenable LP pressing. Most discographies of Verdi’s opera start in 1928 with EMI’s electrical recording, featuring Mercedes Capsir in the title role. Recorded in 1912 and released on 16 etched-label 78 discs, the acoustical Pathé Traviata adds to the discography a vital version of Verdi’s opera sung in French by musical forces of the Opéra-Comique.

By 1912, La Traviata—or, rather, Violetta, as the opera was called in the French edition—had been performed in 26 seasons at the Opéra-Comique since its introduction to the repertory in 1886. Although most of the singers in this recording were members of the Opéra-Comique, the only principal who sang there is baritone Henri Albers. The names of soprano Jane Morlet and tenor Maurizio Troselli never appeared on the roster of the Opéra-Comique. The conductor, Émile Archainbaud served as échef d’orchestre of the Gaîté-Lyrique and did not conduct at the Opéra-Comique until many years after this recording was made.

One wonders why a record company did not attempt to enshrine the interpretation of a celebrated Violetta in an acoustical recording of Verdi’s opera. Mary Garden, Lydia Lipkowska, and Maria Kouznetsova were singing Violetta at the Opéra-Comique when Pathé cast a virtually unknown soprano in the title role. At about the same time, the Metropolitan Opera was casting Marcella Sembrich, Geraldine Farrar, Nellie Melba, and Luisa Tetrazzini in the title role, supported by Enrico Caruso, John McCormack, or Dmitri Smirnoff as Alfredo and Antonio Scotti, Riccardo Stracciari, Pasquale Amato, and Giuseppe De Luca as Germont. Many of these singers were also performing La Traviata at Covent Garden.

Aside from Albers, none of the singers in the Pathé Traviata enjoyed an international career. Morlet and Troselli were members of the Trianon-Lyrique, a lesser Parisian theater which presented an opera season underwritten by the city council. They must have sung Traviata there. Nothing more is known about the tenor, but the soprano achieved minor prominence during a long career. Born in Paris on 22 January 1879, Morlet came from a musical family. Her mother, also named Jane Morlet, sang soprano roles on French stages. Although she made both acoustic and electrical recordings for Pathé and Odeon, Morlet is best known for the two Verdi roles—Violetta and Léonore—she recorded for Pathé in 1912. Four years later, she gave up her operatic career to concentrate on operetta. She sang leading roles and then secondary parts before ending her career as an actress. Morlet continued to appear on the spoken stage until her retirement in 1950. Her death date is undocumented.

Unlike Troselli and Morlet, Albers (1866-1925) appeared at major international houses. The Dutch baritone made his debut in 1889 and, encouraged by Jules Massenet, rapidly established an important career. He reached Covent Garden in 1894 and the Metropolitan Opera four years later. After one season at the Met, Albers made his debut at the Opéra-Comique, where he remained until his death in 1925. Based in Paris, Albers sang guest engagements that took him to Berlin, Vienna, Barcelona, and Milan as well as to the major lyric stages in France. He mastered a broad repertory of leading baritone roles in French, Italian, and German operas. Albers sang Wotan in the first French production of Wagner’s Ring and also recorded five roles in Pathé’s opera series—Escamillo (Carmen), Alphonse (Favorite), Capulet (Roméo), L'Auguste (Frères), and d'Orbel (Traviata).

This recording is based on a French version of the score prepared for the Théâtre Lyrique by Édouard Mangin and first performed in 1864. Published by Léon Escudier, Violetta uses a translation by Édouard Duprez. Violetta Valéry becomes Violetta de Saint-Ys. Alfredo and Giorgio Germont are renamed Rodolphe and Georges d’Orbel. Oddly, Dr. Grenville turns into le Docteur Germont. Flora Bervoix and Annina are now Clara and Annette. Le Marquis d’Obigny retains his name, but Gaston, Vicomte de Létoriere, and Baron Douphol are renamed le Vicomte Émile de Létoriere and le Baron Raynal.

The recording features standard cuts along with a few surprising gaps. The second verse of Violetta’s first-act cabaletta “Pour jamais ta destinée” and the second verse of her last-act aria “Adieu! ta pauvre amie” are omitted as are Rodolphe’s cabaletta “Á toi! á toi mon or”and d’Orbel’s cabaletta “Ah! reviens c’est la vie.” The act-one Stretta de L’Introduction (the ensemble separating Violetta and Rodolphe’s first-act duet and her Scène et Air) is missing. Two cuts—one substantial —mar the second-act Scène et Duo for Violetta and d’Orbel. Surprisingly, a seven-bar orchestral reprise of “Aime-moi, Rodolphe” separates Violetta’s “Adieu je t’aime” and the re-entry of d’Orbel. The third act is performed complete, but the Choeur des Masques in act four is trimmed and part of the duet for Violetta and Rodolphe is also missing.

The Italian version of Verdi’s opera reached Paris on 6 December 1856, three years after its premiere in Venice. Led by Giovanni Bottesini, performance at the Théâtre Italien featured Marietta Piccolomini (Violetta), Mario ????(Alfredo) and Francesco Graziani (Germont). Piccolomini (1834-1899) was the first soprano to achieve international success as Violetta. She created something of a sensation in Italy after undertaking the role for the first time in 1855 at the Teatro Carignano in Turin but divided the critics when she portrayed Verdi’s heroine at Her Majesty’s Theatre on 24 May 1856. The old guard, led by Henry Fothergill Chorley, was offended by her imperfect singing and shocked by the spontaneity and pathos of her acting. “Her performances at times approached offence against maidenly reticence and delicacy,” scolded the circumspect English critic of the Athenœum. The reviewer for the Illustrated London News admitted Piccolomini’s vocal shortcomings before describing the emotional impact of her portrayal. In the scene with Germont, he wrote, “The tumult of contending passions. . . was painted with a truth and beauty not to be surpassed.” He compared Piccolomini’s death scene to the effect Rachel achieved in Adrienne Lecouvreur. “We cannot attempt to describe it, made up as it is of a thousand minute traits of nature and feeling which went at once to the heart of every one.”

Six months later, when Piccolomini introduced La Traviata to Paris, Paolo Scudo complained of her “thin soprano without extent, without timbre or brilliance” but then admitted, “she sings with a feeling so true and so marked, that we almost forget her faults.” Other French critics responded more enthusiastically. One called Piccolomini “young and pretty” and praised her “sonorous, vibrant, sympathetic” voice. Piccolomini, he noted, was a fine actress who could express “passion and anguish” in her singing.

Piccolimini was the first—but not the last—Violetta to divide the critics. In his memoirs, Luigi Arditi analyzed her appeal. “Piccolomini’s attraction lay not so much in her talents as in the fascination of her whole being, and in the display of pathos, which at times, was wonderfully genuine and unquestionably superior to any kind of art.” The Italian soprano flashed through the operatic world like a brilliant meteor. A year after achieving success as Violetta in the United States during the 1858-59 season, Piccolomini retired to marry the Marchese Gaetani della Fargia.

La Traviata became Violetta when Verdi’s opera was produced in French at the Théâtre Lyrique during the 1864 season. Another young, foreign-born soprano created a sensation in the title role. Christine Nilsson was barely 20 years old when she sang her first Violetta in Paris. “Violetta was an audacious role to choose for a debut,” writes T.J. Walsh in his chronicle of Second Empire opera, “yet she triumphed resplendently.” Lillie de Hegermann-Lindencrone, an amateur singer and the wife of the Danish ambassador, left a vivid description of the premiere in her memoirs. She described the stage covered with flowers at the end of the performance and captured the joy and exhaustion of the soprano. “And Nilsson,” she wrote, “picking up her floral tributes, was wreathed in smiles; but they faded like the mist before the sun the minute the curtain was lowered, and she looked tired and worn out.” A French critic described the Swedish soprano’s voice as “eminently pure, flexible, and true in the upper range” and noted “a certain dreamy tenderness in her look and a pathetic melody in the tones of her voice which impart a great charm to her rendering of the part.”

In the audience at the Théâtre Lyrique that night sat Mme Doche, the actress who had created Marguerite Gautier in the premiere of La Dame aux Camélias. Also attending the performance was Adelina Patti, another young soprano destined to become the most celebrated Violetta of her day. Born like Nilsson in 1843, Patti was the Violetta of choice at the Théâtre Italien from 1864 to 1888. Patti first portrayed Verdi’s courtesan at the age of 17 in Philadelphia and New York. The antithesis of Piccolomini, Patti was a flawless vocal technician who did not inhabit her characters with verve or abandon. When she sang the role for the first time in New York, the critic for the Times praised Patti’s singing but complained her portrayal smacked “more of the boarding school than of life” and added “it would be idle to say that she either comprehended or pretended to create the role in its dramatic aspects.”

Patti deepened her portrayal. A year after her debut in the role, she scored a triumph when she sang La Traviata at Covent Garden. From New York, London, and Paris to Rome, Venice, and Milan, she reigned supreme. In 1893, when she was 50 years old, Patti sang Violetta at La Scala. Verdi attended the first performance. In a letter to Herman Klein, Patti described her triumph and added “Verdi ...actually wept tears of joy and delight. It appears that he said. . . that my phrasing was too touching for words and that I sang divinely.” Patti left Milan with an autographed photograph of the composer dedicated “to the marvelous artiste.”

Violetta, as the French would say, is le rôle des rôles, a part that has attracted every kind of soprano, from leggero and lirico to spinto. Even dramatic sopranos have attempted the role. Patti explained why every soprano wants to sing this part. “Violetta seems to me to be the very ideal of what a part ought to be,” she said in an interview. “I love singing and I love acting, and where is one given more room for the practice of both arts than in the part of Violetta? The first part affords one a chance of proving one’s mettle as a fioriture singer, the second part must be really lived.”

Paris heard many of the great Violettas at the Théâtre Italien and the Opéra-Comique. In 1928, Verdi’s opera finally reached the Paris Opéra when Fanny Heldy sang Violetta, a role she had previously performed at the Opéra-Comique. For the next 15 years, Heldy monopolized the role at the Opéra. Oddly, few of the great Violettas of the last 75 years have sung the role in Paris. Since the war, Janine Micheau, Renée Doria, Virginia Zeani, Teresa Stich-Randall, and Katia Ricciarelli have sung Violetta at the Opéra. Most of the great post-war Violettas—from Licia Albanese and Renata Tebaldi to Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Beverly Sills—never performed Violetta in Paris.

Jane Morlet may not claim a place among the pre-eminent Violettas, but she sustains the role with honor and, at times, genuine distinction. Her soprano—notable for its compact, ringing tone —leaps out of the dim recording with vital impact. Her voice sounds even throughout its compass, and remains true and firm the higher it rises. And, she commands what so few Violettas in our time enjoy, a solid core of sound in the middle and lower-middle range where much of Violetta’s music lies. Morlet has a fluent technique that allows her to execute the divisions and scale passages in the first-act duet with Alfredo and “Toujours libre.” And she can open up her voice to an impressive climax in “Aime-moi, Rodolphe” or reduce it to a firmly focused mezza-voce in the duet with Germont. Morlet may not be an interventionist interpreter—her singing is straightforward rather than delicately nuanced—but her portrayal is heartfelt and sincere.

This fine Violetta receives strong support from the tenor and baritone. Troselli sings urgently. He favors an intense vibrato that, caught close up by the recording horn, can sound bleating, especially in the higher range. But this Alfredo, despite the raw tone, commands the music and suggests the ardor of a young man consumed by love. Albers makes a dignified Georges d’Orbel. His voice lacks the ultimate in color and dynamic shading, but he sustains the music with admirable control. Archainbaud proves to be a competent conductor.

The recording must have been made quickly. Like a live performance, this Traviata gains intensity and impetus as the drama deepens. The first act, marred by that massive cut, sounds rather perfunctory, but as the great second-act duet for Violetta and Germont unfolds, Morlet and Albers begin to inhabit their characters. By the time the Gambling Scene begins, the performance has sprung to life. From Violetta’s entrance, Morlet deepens her portrayal. In the desolate phrase that rises and falls to express Violetta’s foreboding, she sings affectingly. Striking fire in the anguished scene between Violetta and Rodolphe, Morlet and Troselli charge their exchange with deep emotion. The tenor sings passionately but firmly in Alfredo’s denunciation of Violetta. Albers makes much of d’Orbel’s intervention. In the ensemble that caps the act, Morlet may not refine her soprano down to the voce debolissima Verdi asks for, but she sings poignantly and rides the ensemble with ease. In the final act, she suffuses her voice with pathos in “Adieu tout ce que j’aime” and then, like every memorable Violetta, touches the heart in the death scene.

A great Traviata? Perhaps not. But this Marston reissue rescues from oblivion a worthy performance. Discographers of La Traviata will no longer be able ignore the Pathé recording of Verdi’s opera.

© Robert Baxter, 2003


Lawrence F. Holdridge and John Humbley provided valuable documentation for these notes.



The Pathé Opera Series

The French Pathé Company undertook the prodigious task of recording a series of eleven complete operas and two complete plays in French, collectively entitled “Le Théâtre chez soi” (Your Theater at Home). The enterprise began in 1911 and by the end of 1913, nine operas and two plays were on disc. In 1922 and 1923 two additional operas were added to complete the series. Although the Pathé opera project turned out to be a commercial failure, it is impossible to overestimate the historical and musical significance of the series. These recordings transport us back to an era when the lost art of French singing still flourished in Paris.

Listening to any of the operas in this series gives one the palpable impression of an actual live performance although the sound on the original discs is primitive. This is in large part due to the rudimentary recording method Pathé employed. Each master recording was originally made on a large wax cylinder. The next step in the process involved playing the cylinder back and transferring the sound to a wax disc, which became the master for the issued record. This was accomplished by means of an acoustical connection between the diaphragm of the cylinder reproducer and the diaphragm of the disc recorder, much like two tin cans at either end of a taut piece of string. All Pathé discs were, therefore, one generation removed from the original master, and consequently, the sonic quality of each disc hinged upon exactly how well the cylinder-to-disc transfer was made. Unfortunately, Pathé seemed to have no concept of quality control, and their issued discs ranged from surprisingly vivid to dreadfully anemic. Therefore, in reissuing this series on CD, several copies of each set are often necessary to provide one complete compilation in acceptable sound. Even then, transferring the original discs to the digital domain presents a great challenge. Every effort has been made to keep the pitch constant, to join the sides according to the score and to provide the best quality possible.