Massenet's Manon: The First Complete Recording 1923 Pathé
Featuring Fanny Heldy

52003-2 (2 CDs)  | $ 36.00
OPERA

 

Massenet's Manon: The First Complete Recording 1923 Pathé
The historically important first recording of Massenet's classic captures the French style of singing that is sadly lost today. This 2-CD set also includes a bonus cut of Georgette Brejan-Silver singing “The Fabliau” aria, written for her by Massenet.
Jules Massenet (1842-1912)
Manon
The First Recording: 1923 Pathé
Featuring Fanny Heldy
Opera in five acts
Recorded in forty-eight parts

Libretto by Henri Meilhac & Phillipe Gille
Based on the novel Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut

by Antoine-François Prévost d'Exiles

Manon Lescaut

.................................Fanny Heldy

Le chevalier des Grieux

................................. Jean Marny

Lescaut, Manon's cousin

................................. Léon Ponzio

Le comte des Grieux

................................. Pierre Dupré

Guillot de Morfontaine, a nobleman

................................. Louis Mesmaecker

De Brétigny, a nobleman

................................. Maurice Sauvageot

Rosette, an actress

................................. Lucienne Estève

Poussette, an actress

................................. Marthe Coiffier

Javotte, an actress

................................. Madeleine Sibille

L'hôtelier

................................. Louis Morturier

La servante

................................. Marguerite Julliot

HENRI BÜSSER, conductor
OPÉRA-COMIQUE, chorus and orchestra

Producer: Ward Marston
Audio Conservation: Ward Marston

MARSTON would like to thank Victor Girard, Lawrence F. Holdridge,
R. Peter Munves and Robert Tuggle for their help in the production of this CD release.

CD 1 (77:31)
ACT I (36:00)
  1. Prélude Orchestra [3:18]
    (Manon 1) 1718
  2. Holà! Hé, monsieur l'hôtelier Guillot; Brétigny; Poussette; Javotte; Rosette [2:27]
    (Manon 2) 1718
  3. Hors d'oeuvre de choix L'hôtelier; Guillot; Brétigny; Poussette; Javotte; Rosette [2:50]
    (Manon 3) 1719
  4. C'est bien ici l'hôtellerie...Allez à l'auberge voisine Lescaut [3:13]
    (Manon 4) 1719
  5. Ah! mon cousin...Je suis encore tout étourdie Manon [3:23]
    (Manon 5) 1720
  6. Partez, on sonne Chorus [1:54]
    (Manon 6) 1720
  7. Hôtelier du malheur Manon; Poussette; Javotte; Rosette; Guillot; Brétigny; Lescaut [3:20]
    (Manon 7) 1721
  8. Ecoutez la sagesse...Ne bronchez pas Lescaut [2:58]
    (Manon 8) 1721
  9. Restons ici...Voyons, Manon Manon [3:08]
    (Manon 9) 1722
  10. Quelqu'un! Vite à mon banc de pierre...Mon père...Et je sais votre nom Manon; des Grieux [3:34]
    (Manon 10) 1722
  11. Ah! parlez-moi...Non! Votre liberté ne sera pas ravie Manon; des Grieux [3:09]
    (Manon 11) 1723
  12. Nous vivrons à Paris Manon; des Grieux [2:46]
  13. (Manon 12) 1723

    ACT II (23:38)
  14. Introduction Orchestra...Manon! Avez-vous peur que mon visage Manon; des Grieux [2:58]
    (Manon 13) 1724
  15. On l'appelle Manon Manon; des Grieux [3:19]
    (Manon 14) 1724
  16. Enfin, les amoureux Manon; des Grieux; Lescaut; Brétigny [3:20]
    (Manon 15) 1725
  17. Je venais d'écrire à mon père Manon; des Grieux; Lescaut; Brétigny [3:12]
    (Manon 16) 1725
  18. C'est parfait! On ne peut mieux dire Manon; des Grieux; Lescaut; Brétigny [2:17]
    (Manon 17) 1726
  19. Allons! il le faut...Adieu, notre petite table Manon [3:06]
    (Manon 18) 1726
  20. Enfin, Manon, nous voilà seuls ensemble!...En fermant les yeux Manon; des Grieux [3:38]
    (Manon 19) 1727
  21. Quelqu'un? Il ne faut pas de trouble-fête Manon; des Grieux [1:48]
    (Manon 20) 1727

    ACT III, Scene 1 (17:40)
  22. Entr'acte...Menuet Orchestra [2:20]
    (Manon 21) 1728
  23. C'est la fête au Cours-la-Reine Poussette; Javotte; Rosette [3:02]
    (Manon 22) 1728
  24. Choisir et pourquoi...A quoi bon l'économie Lescaut [3:10]
    (Manon 23) 1729
  25. Bonjour, Poussette Poussette; Jovotte; Rosette; Guillot; Brétigny [3:17]
    (Manon 24) 1729
  26. Suis-je gentille ainsi?...Je marche sur tous le chemins Manon [2:54]
    (Manon 25) 1730
  27. Obéissons quand leur voix appelle (Gavotte) Manon [2:57]
    (Manon 26) 1730

     

CD 2 (79:02)
ACT III, Scene 1 (continued) (13:40)
  1. Et maintenant restez seul un instant Manon; Comte; Brétigny [2:04]
    (Manon 27) 1731
  2. Je devine alors la raison...Pardon, mais j'étais là Manon, Comte, Brétigny [3:00]
    (Manon 28) 1731
  3. Un mot encore Manon; Comte; Brétigny; Guillot; Lescaut [2:33]
    (Manon 29) 1732
  4. Voici l'Opéra!...ballet Guillot; Brétigny [3:03]
    (Manon 30) 1732
  5. Ballet...final Manon; Lescaut; Guillot [3:00]
    (Manon 31) 1733

    ACT III, Scene 2 (19:43)
  6. Introduction...Quelle éloquence! L'admirable orateur! Chorus [2:47]
    (Manon 32) 1733
  7. Allons, mon cher...Epousez quelque brave fille Comte; des Grieux [3:24]
    (Manon 33) 1734
  8. Je suis seul...Ah, fuyez, douce image des Grieux 3:21
    (Manon 34) 1734
  9. Ces murs silencieux...Pardonnez-moi, Dieu de toute puissance Manon [3:11]
    (Manon 35) 1735
  10. Ah! vous Manon; des Grieux [3:37]
    (Manon 36) 1735
  11. N'est-ce plus ma main Manon; des Grieux [3:23]
    (Manon 37) 1736

    ACT IV (17:02)
  12. Deux! Cinq! Sept! Dix! Poussette; Javotte; Rosette; Lescaut; Chorus [2:20]
    (Manon 38) 1736
  13. M'y voici donc, j'aurais du résister Manon; des Grieux; Lescaut; Guillot [2:55]
    (Manon 39) 1737
  14. La fortune n'est intraitable Manon; des Grieux; Lescaut; Guillot; Poussette; Javotte; Rosette [3:01]
    (Manon 40) 1737
  15. Ce bruit de l'or Manon; Poussette; Javotte; Rosette [2:06]
    (Manon 41) 1738
  16. Au jeu, au jeu Manon; Poussette; Javotte; Rosette; des Grieux; Guillot; Lescaut [3:28]
    (Manon 42) 1738
  17. Le coupable est monsieur Manon; Poussette; Javotte; Rosette; des Grieux; Guillot; Comte [3:12]
    (Manon 43) 1739

    ACT V (14:28)
  18. Manon, pauvre Manon des Grieux; Lescaut [3:19]
    (Manon 44) 1739
  19. Capitaine, o gué, es-tu fatigué des Grieux; Lescaut [3:05]
    (Manon 45) 1740
  20. Ah, des Grieux des Grieux; Manon [2:54]
    (Manon 46) 1740
  21. Ah, je sens une pure flamme...O Manon! Mon amour, ma femme des Grieux; Manon [1:56]
    (Manon 47) 1741
  22. Ah! j'ai bonne mémoire des Grieux; Manon [3:14]
    (Manon 48) 1741

    APPENDIX (13:48)
  23. Fabliau* (Oui, dans les bois) (Act III, Scene 1) [3:21]
    Georgette Bréjean-Silver (b. 1871)
    1905; (xph 679) Fonotipia 39225
  24. Et je sais votre nom (Act I) [2:10]
    Lucette Korsoff (1876-1955) and Leon Beyle (1871-1922)
    1908; (5735h) Gramophone 34198
  25. Nous vivrons à Paris (Act I) [2:07]
    Lucette Korsoff (1876-1955) and Leon Beyle (1871-1922)
    1908: (5750h) Gramophone 34196
  26. On l'appelle Manon (Act II) [2:08]
    Marguerite Carré (1880-1947) and Leon Beyle (1871-1922)
    1904; (0674) Pathé 0674
  27. Pardon, mais j'étais là (Act III, Scene 1) [3:45]
    Aline Vallandri (1878-1952) and Hector Dufranne (1870-1951)
    1908; (600i) Gramophone 034021

    *The Fabliau, was written by Massenet in the early 1890s as an alternate of the traditional Gavotte for Mme. Bréjean-Silver who debuted as Manon in 1890 at the Opéra-Comique


Tradition. Toscanini dismissed it contemptuously as nothing more than the last bad performance, but in reality its genesis is rarely so spontaneous or so simple, its validity so patently specious. No, however good, bad, or indifferent, however vital or irrelevant, tradition is a gradual coalescence of routine and habit, inspiration, innovation and authority, a symbiotic process born of invention, elaboration, transformation and renewal, approval and rejection in which creator, interpreter and public (even critics) play their part.

If so complex a phenomenon is unlikely to come into existence overnight, neither is it likely to vanish in a day, and least of all in France, where for centuries the cultivation and conservation of tradition have been characteristic features of the national culture. Yet even in France, few traditions, musical or otherwise, have been maintained over so many generations with as much integrity, vitality, or pride as those of opéra comique.

From its modest beginnings in the fairground vaudevilles and the social and political satires "mêlées d'ariettes" of the ancien régime, opéra comique developed into one of the richest, most versatile of nineteenth-century musical genres. Though sentimental comedies and light romances like Boieldieu's La Dame blanche, Adam's Le Chalet, and Hérold's Le Pré au clercs dominated the repertoire, the genre embraced a wide variety of forms, styles, and subjects, and many of the best-known and most popular of French operas (Cherubini's Médée; Gounod's Faust and Mireille; Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de perles and Carmen; Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman; Delibe's Lakmé; Lalo's Le Roi d'Ys; even Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande) were originally conceived and produced as opéras comiques. Moreover, while grand opéra, with its noble sentiments, lofty aspirations, and rigid formal and stylistic requirements, always remained something of an international hybrid, by contrast, opéra comique, with its mix of charm and wit, its evocations of provincial simplicity and Parisian sophistication, was quintessentially Gallic. Most importantly, it was arguable here, amidst the lighter textures and generally more modest vocal demands of opéra comique, that the virtues we traditionally associate with "Golden Age" French singing (i.e., a clear, bright, forward tone; elegance of phrasing and diction; an equal concern for tonal beauty and eloquent declamation) were principally cultivated and refined, and it is here that they found their primary expression.

Many will object that, however vital these traditions may have been, for all intents and purposes they have ceased to exist since the dissolution of the Paris Opéra-Comique company in the early 1970's, if not since the Second World War. Yet if the opéra-comique tradition was, for more than two hundred and fifty years, one of the most distinctive and best maintained forms of French artistic expression, fortunately it was also - in the last seventy-five years of its existence - one of the best documented. And it is entirely fitting that among the numerous superb recordings made by the forces of the Opéra-Comique since the earliest years of this century, the most frequently recorded work should be Massenet's Manon. For surely no other composer's style so fully embodied the twin ideals of sentimentality and intimate expression so central to opéra comique, and in no other work did Massenet so successfully reconcile the musical and dramatic requirements of the genre with those of his own genius.

The performance preserved here, the work's first complete recording, dates from 1923 and constitutes the last of the prestigious series of opera sets made by Pathé via the hill-and-dale, or vertical, process. While it has not been a favorite with the critics, this 1923 Manon is arguably the most authentic on records and the truest to the spirit of the work as Massenet conceived it. One cannot deny that many aspects of it have been equaled or surpassed on subsequent sets. The ensembles are occasionally ragged and there are a number of unfortunate and awkwardly managed cuts. Nevertheless, there is a palpable sense of atmosphere, of time and place, that is unmistakable. Although this is a charming and clever period piece set in the early 18th century, it is Massenet's own times we are made most aware of.

Much of this must be credited to the conductor, Henri Büsser (1872-1973), the husband of soprano Yvonne Gall (1885-1972) and one of the leading French operatic composers and conductors of the first half of the century. During the last decades of Massenet's life, he was one of the composer's closest protégés, assisting him in the preparation of a number of his operas' premieres and revivals. If Büsser's reading of the score occasionally seems lacking in sensitivity and finesse, he often surprises us with his idiomatic handling of tempi, phrasing, and orchestral details, and nowhere more than in the tender tenuti and accelerandi of the duo de la rencontre in Act I. Even if we cannot escape the persistent feeling, in the gambling scene of Act IV, that the entire ensemble is on the verge of collapsing, we must nevertheless concede that no other reading has so uncannily captured the frantic desperation and surreal drama of the proceedings. Indeed, in his intrinsic feeling for the subtle shadings of the composer's harmonic language, in his command of the ever present but ever-changing rubato, so crucial to the style, in his careful attention to the seemingly infinite variety of articulation demanded by Massenet, Büsser need bow to no one.

Nor, for that matter, need most of his singers. With the exception of the Lescaut, Léon Ponzio, all were regular members of the Paris Opéra-Comique and were thoroughly versed not only in the general traditions of the comique genre, but also in the particular idioms of one of its most brilliant practitioners, Massenet, and one of its supreme manifestations, Manon. Baritone Louis Mesmaecker, in fact, had created La Fourmi in Massenet's divertissement-ballet La Cigale at the Opéra-Comique in 1904. Mesmaecker was hardly a great singer, but his Guillot is both imaginative and endearing, in fact, the most characterful performance of the role to date. There is likewise nothing vocally distinguished about the Brétigny of Maurice Sauvageot (b. 1890), yet he dispatches his lines with such style and aplomb, particularly in the opening ensemble before the inn at Amiens and in the duet-quartet of Act II, that the character comes to life before our eyes.

The one truly disappointing performance is that of the comte des Grieux, bass-baritone Pierre Dupré (b.1884). A graduate of the Conservatoire National, Dupré debuted at the Opéra-Comique in 1909, remaining there for over thirty-five years. He enjoyed great success early on but by the time of this Manon his voice was afflicted by a persistent wobble throughout most of its range and his singing had little to recommend it. Next to Heldy's vibrant Manon, he is a virtual cipher in the Cours-La-Reine duet, "Pardon, mais j'étais là" [CD2, Track 2]. Even worse is his throaty, lugubrious performance of "Epousez quelque brave fille" [CD2, Track 7]. When we recall that such fine basses as Belhomme and Dufranne were then active (not to mention Louis Morturier, who does a splendid job with the tiny role of the hôtelier), we can only wonder at such a pedestrian choice.

No such complaint can be leveled at the Lescaut of Léon Ponzio (1887-1947); on the contrary, his performance is the highlight of the set and quite possibly one of the finest operatic assumptions on records. For one thing, it is superbly sung, with beautifully forward, vibrant tone, a ravishing legato, and a disarming ease and consistency of production from one extreme of the range to the other. It is also stylishly and suavely delivered, exemplifying the traditional French attention to detail, to clear and expressive enunciation, and to subtly differentiated phrasing. And above all, it is richly and vibrantly portrayed, bringing the character before us in all his roguish swagger, his rascally charm, and his contagious bonhomie. Whether it be the unbridled insouciance of his opening solo. "Allez à l'auberge voisine" [CD1, Track 4], the robust exhortations of "Ne bronchez pas" [CD1, Track 8],or the exquisitely nuanced cadences of the faux minuet apostrophe "à Rosalinde" in the middle of "A quoi bon l'économie" [CD1, Track 23], this is an endlessly fascinating performance and an object lesson both in singing and in style.

Though the des Grieux of Jean Marny (b.1885) faces strong competition on later recordings from Rogatchewsky, Legay, and Gedda, he is not to be lightly dismissed. Nor will it do to beat him with the example of Clément; for if he does not replicate the latter's exquisite legato in the "Rêve" (and who does?) his overall performance - in terms of elegantly produced and modulated tone, clarity of diction, subtlety of phrasing, and variety of expression - is arguably the closest approximation we have to a complete recording of the role by that paragon of French vocal style and grace. Marny had a long, distinguished career, not only at the Paris Opéra-Comique, where he debuted in 1911, but also in Marseilles, Monte Carlo, and the leading theaters of the French provinces. He was particularly acclaimed as des Grieux, and it is easy to hear why. From the delicately spun head-notes of "Mon père" [CD1, Track 10] in his entrance music to the rapturous effusions of "Non! Votre liberté ne sera pas ravie" [CD1, Track 11] from the searing intensity of his "Ah, fuyez" [CD 2, Track 8] to the desperate ardor of his "O Manon! Mon amour, ma femme" [CD2, Track 21] in the opera's final pages, he is a consummate Chevalier.

And what of our Manon? The Belgian soprano Fanny Heldy (1888-1973) was born Marguerite Virginie Emma Clémentine Deceuninck in Ath, outside Liége. After graduating from the Liége Conservatoire, she made her debut at the Monnaie in 1910 as Elena in Gunsbourg's Ivan le Terrible. Between 1914 and 1918 she sang a number of major roles at Monte Carlo, among them Mimi, Elvira in Ernani, Salomé in Hérodiade, Gounod's Marguerite, and Boito's Margherita. Her debut at the Paris Opéra-Comique occurred in 1917 as Violetta; she remained a member of the company for twenty years, and achieved some of her greatest triumphs there in a varied repertoire that encompassed not only Rosina, Olympia, Antonia, and Manon, but Mimi, Butterfly, and Tosca as well. It was at the Paris Opéra, however, where she debuted as Juliette in 1920, that Heldy reigned supreme as prima donna assoluta for almost a quarter of a century. There she added to her repertoire such parts as Nedda, Elsa, Ophélia, Esclarmonde, and Thaïs. In 1921 she assisted in the world premiere of Gabriel Dupont's Antar and in 1935 created the role of Portia in Reynaldo Hahn's Le Marchand de Venise. Unlike most French singers, she had a considerable international career. Toscanini invited her to La Scala to sing Mélisande and Louise, two of her most famous roles, in 1926. Later that year, she caused quite a sensation when she appeared with Ansseau at Covent Garden in Manon.

Critical opinion of Heldy has never been very high on this side of the Atlantic, and in particular, her performance on this set has come in for a good deal of harsh treatment. Hers may not have been the most beautiful voice in the world, the biggest, or the most agile; but it was clearly a remarkable instrument, capable of much loveliness, brilliance, and power. Her technique may not have been the most accomplished, or her musicianship the most finished; yet she sang a wide range of demanding roles for many years to great acclaim. And undeniably there is much to admire in her Manon. First and foremost, there is the beauty of tone, not always ideally secure in the very highest regions (though she tosses off some stunning high D's!) but never shrill or brittle. Less common, even among French singers, is her astonishing fidelity to Massenet's profusion of expression and articulation markings. No one has surpassed her in this regard: not Féraldy, as superb as she is both in excerpts and on her complete recording; not Yvonne Gall, widely regarded for her meticulous musicianship; not even the ever-scrupulous Ninon Vallin. Yet the chief virtue of Heldy's performance is its constant variety, and in this she is arguably unique. Not for her the one-dimensional portrayal: Manon-as-Naïve; Manon-as-Coquette; Manon-as-Vixen; Manon-as-Harlot. Her Manon is all these and more, as events and her soul dictate. And she is sincere. Her innocent enthusiasm in "Je suis encore tout étourdie" [CD1, Track 5] is devoid of coyness and mincing, her "Voyons, Manon" [CD1, Track 9] of pouting. As the emotions become more subtle, so does her response to them; thus, her "Adieu, notre petite table" [CD1, Track 18] is no "Suicidio!" on the halfshell, but a genuinely tender, wistful reflection. And when she must rise to the great moments - the brazen abandon of "Je marche sur tous les chemins" [CD1, Track 25], the hysterical passion of "N'est-ce plus ma main" [CD2, Track 11] - they are the more effective for the contrast. Most significant of all is the fact that each of her effects is contrived by purely vocal means, by the careful husbanding of tonal and verbal energy, and not by any extraneous histrionics.

 

© John Santoro, 1997

I would like to express my gratitude to Victor Girard whose continuing research has been invaluable to me in preparing the following note.

Between 1911 and 1913, the French Pathé Company undertook the prodigious task of recording a series of nine complete operas and two complete plays in French, which was collectively entitled "Le théâtre chez soi" (Your Theater at Home). In approximately one and one-half years, Pathé released five operas from the standard French and three from the standard Italian repertory: Bizet's Carmen, Gounod's Faust, Verdi's Il Trovatore (Le Trouvère) and La Traviata, Massé's Galathée, Donizetti's La Favorite, Verdi's Rigoletto and Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. In late 1912 or early 1913, Pathé engaged the composer Jean Nouguès - whose work Quo Vadis?, created at the Th. de la Gaîté on 26 November 1909 proved to be the most successful opera in the history of the 20th century French opera - to compose expressly for the Pathé Company a new two-act opera entitled Les Frères Danilo. The opera was probably recorded from manuscript since neither the music nor libretto for this work were ever published. No further complete operas were recorded by Pathé until Massé's Les Noces de Jeannette was added to the series in 1922, followed in 1923 by Massenet's Manon, which is presented here for the first time on compact disc.

The Pathé opera project turned out to be a commercial failure, but it would be impossible to overestimate the historical and musical significance of the Pathé series. For these recordings transport us back to an era when the art of French singing still flourished in Paris. The sound on these discs is, by any standard, primitive, and yet, they somehow give one the palpable impression of an actual live performance.

Transferring the original discs to the digital domain has presented a great challenge, for collectors of old records generally agree that Pathé discs are the most troublesome to reproduce effectively. This is due to the convoluted and clumsy recording method employed uniquely by Pathé. 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. During the past two years, I have assembled two complete sets of Manon which I have used for this project. In transferring these discs, every effort has been made to keep the pitch constant and to join the sides according to the score.

Listening to an acoustical recording of a complete opera is a difficult task, even for a 78 fanatic. But if one listens to this recording of Manon without distraction, after a while the surface scratch seems to recede revealing a performance, at once charming and vibrant. There is in this performance a delicious flavor and a sense of style utterly lacking in French opera performances of our own time. The immediacy of this recording is what I find so appealing, and over the next three years, I hope to release all eleven operas in the entire Pathé series.

I have decided to include at the end of the second disc five short Manon excerpts sung by other important Massenet interpreters. Most important among these is the 1905 recording of Georgette Bréjean-Silver singing the "Fabliau." This aria was written specifically for Bréjean-Silver and was intended to replace the famous "Gavotte" in Act Three. The "Fabliau" has rarely been performed in the complete opera. Another singer of interest heard here is Marguerite Carré, the wife of Albert Carré, the director of the Opéra-Comique from 1898-1912. Though not favored by the critics, Carré was chosen to sing the role of Manon at the 500th performance at the Opéra-Comique and was warmly congratulated by the composer.

© Ward Marston, 1997