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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Jules Massenet wrote some forty operas but today only Manon has a sure foothold on the stage, although Werther is highly esteemed and a few others are produced from time to time. The secrets of Manons success are not difficult to discern: it has a strong story, with superb rôles for the prima donna and the leading man, and the music is by turns charming, lyrical and dramatic. Manon herself is given music that is both beautiful and memorable, and two of her contributions, one of them the gavotte that was a late addition to the score, are often heard on their own. The tenors two arias also have an even healthier life outside the opera.
The work was the second to be based on the novel Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost (1697-1763), who had been a Benedictine monk but had broken his vows and gone into exile in England and Holland. The 1856 opéra comique by Auber had not been a success, so Massenet felt able to suggest the topic to the famous librettist Henri Meilhac in 1881 (later Puccini would commandeer it for his first great success). With Philippe Gille joining Meilhac as collaborator, the sprawling story was condensed, the major change being that Manons death occurred in France rather than America. Lescaut was made Manons cousin rather than her brother. The opera was completed during 1882 and orchestrated in the first half of 1883 Massenet actually composed some of the music in The Hague, staying in rooms which had once been occupied by Prévost. Although the piece was designated an opéra comique, it had the minimum of dialogue; Massenet did, however, compose some passages in melodrama (speech over music). He also left a version with sung settings of the spoken passages. The première took place at the Paris Opéra-Comique on 19th January 1884 and the following year Manon was heard in Liverpool and New York. It quickly became popular. The Chevalier Des Grieux has been sung by Enrico Caruso, Fernand Ansseau, André DArkor, Henri Legay, Nicolai Gedda and Alain Vanzo, while among the famed exponents of Manon have been Geraldine Farrar, Fanny Heldy, Maggie Teyte, Ninon Vallin and Victoria de los Angeles.
The present recording is a showcase for another notable Manon, Germaine Féraldy. It was not the first notable set to appear Pathé had made one in 1923 with Heldy but it was the first in really good sound and two generations of record collectors learnt the opera from it. Even today it has not been surpassed. Inevitably the 78rpm recording now sounds dated but the performance itself is such a magnificent example of teamwork and style that it can still give more pleasure than any other. Under the baton of Elie Cohen, the superb cast sing in a conversational fashion that is a lost art today. The highlights are not thrown away but they take their natural place in the scheme of things, rather than being emphasized. A good example can be found in Act Two, where within a few minutes we hear Manons Adieu, notre petite table and Des Grieuxs En fermant les yeux, both delivered with perfect poise, almost as if they were being spoken. It is worth noting that, like several of the galaxy of tenors who graced the Paris stages between the wars, Joseph Rogatchewsky was not French born; yet he fits into an otherwise Franco-Belgian cast without dropping a syllable. Two other important ingredients are the idiomatic choral singing and a style of orchestral playing that in 1928/9 had not changed much since Massenets time. We hear real French flutes, horns and bassoons and string playing (using gut strings) mostly on the string, with détaché employed only as a special effect. Like the singers, the players are all imbued with the lightness and grace that was the Opéra-Comique way. Alas, under the deadening leadership of preening, overweening international conductors, the French style has been bulldozed out of existence, but it lives again every time we listen to these CDs.
Elie Cohen made his Opéra-Comique début with Lakmé on 7th August 1922 and in the years between the wars was a valued conductor at the house, conducting much ballet, including Swan Lake, as well as opera. He made a number of exquisite recordings, including some of the Songs of the Auvergne with Madeleine Grey, excerpts from Mignon, and admired sets of Carmen and Werther. Little is known of his life outside the theatre.
Germaine Féraldy was born in Toulouse in 1894 and died there unexpectedly in 1949. She studied at the Conservatoires in her native city and Paris, and after singing all over France and Belgium arrived at the Opéra-Comique on 18th August 1924 as Micaëla in Carmen. Until 1942 she was a great favourite at the house, singing the title rôles in Mireille, Manon, La traviata and Lakmé and taking part in both of Ravels one-acters. A beautiful woman with a fine stage presence, she was also a guest artist in Monte Carlo, Nice, London, Brussels and Rio de Janeiro and made a number of recordings. After her retirement she taught at the Toulouse Conservatoire.
Joseph Rogatchewsky was born in Mirgorod, Ukraine, in 1891 but went to Paris at the age of eighteen to study and fought in the French army in the Great War. Having returned to the Conservatoire to finish his studies, he made his début in 1922 in Toulouse and was immediately engaged by the Opéra-Comique, making his bow in Tosca. From 1924 he was based at the Monnaie in Brussels, where he was hugely popular until 1952 and then became the theatres director until 1959; but he returned regularly to the Opéra-Comique, also singing at the Paris Opéra and in Vienna. From 1960 he taught singing in Brussels and he died in retirement at Ixelles in 1985. Apart from Manon he made excellent solo discs for Columbia.
Georges Villier, whose real name was Borckmans, was born in Brussels in 1884 and was a leading Belgian baritone. He studied law but gravitated to music at the Liège Conservatoire, making his début at the Monnaie in 1910. During the Great War, after military service in which he was taken prisoner, he directed the opera house at Antwerp. He then sang in Marseille and at the Trianon Lyrique in Paris, moving to the Opéra-Comique in 1925 and singing major rôles there for ten years. In Belgium he organized the Quatuor Villier which gave many concerts, and he was a well-known solo recitalist. His later opera performances were in Belgian houses, giving his farewell performance as Figaro in The Barber of Seville at the Théatre du Parc in 1946. He made many records of opera, operettes and mélodies, and died in 1963.
The bass-baritone Louis Guénot was born in 1891 and was a stalwart of the Opéra-Comique from 1922 until after the Second World War, equally adept in leading rôles such as Escamillo in Carmen or Zurga in The Pearl Fishers and in character rôles he even sang Osmin in Die Entführung. He took part in Elie Cohens recordings of Carmen (taking three rôles) and Werther and also made some solo discs. He died in 1968.
 The Prélude includes festive music from the Cours-la Reine in Paris, the song of the soldiers taking Manon to Le Havre for transportation and the love of Des Grieux for Manon.
 The nobleman Guillot and tax collector De Brétigny come from the summerhouse of a hostelry in Amiens into the courtyard, calling for the