Studio recording by French Columbia, December 1928 through March 1929, and subsequently issued on 36 sides at 78 rpm. It will be noted that while the leading performers remain consistent throughout, smaller parts were apparently taken up by whomever was conveniently available during the recording sessions.
This performance, the first complete "Manon" recorded by electronic means, was digitally remastered by the admirable Ward Marston from two sets of French and two sets of American 78 rpm pressings from which he cherry-picked the best renderings.
Marston has this to say: "The sound of this recording is extremely good for its time possessing an excellent balance between the singers and the orchestra. Its major flaw, however, is the fact that it was recorded in an acoustically dead studio with the singers placed a bit too close to the microphone. I have taken the liberty of adding a small amount of artificial reverberation which will, hopefully, give the performance a more pleasant sound without detracting from its immediacy." He points out that "two sides in Act I were defectively recorded. The first of these ... begins with the words 'Allons Messieurs' [Track 2]. The sound here is extremely distorted and strident, resisting my best efforts at improvement. The same sonic flaw afflicts ... 'Hotelier de malheur' [Track 6]."
As is often the case, Marston is too hard on his own work. The current version sounds fine--amazingly so, considering its venerable age. There is some hiss and the orchestra is somewhat compressed in range and depth. Nevertheless, compared to some true sonic horrors that manage to retain legions of admirers--the appalling Callas/Del Monaco "Andrea Chenier" comes to mind, and a Callas "Trovatore" from Mexico--this "Manon" seems positively high fidelity.
Some audiophile reviewers have significantly downgraded their appraisals of this recording because of Marston's juiced up reverberation. They are out of their minds.
MANON LESCAUT - Germaine Feraldy (soprano)
LE CHEVALIER DES GRIEUX - Josef Rogatchewsky (tenor)
LESCAUT - Georges Villier (baritone)
LE COMTE DES GRIEUX - Louis Guenot (bass-baritone)
POUSETTE - Andree Vavon (soprano)
JAVOTTE - Jeanne Rambert / Mme. Ravery (sopranos)
ROSETTE - Andree Bernadet / Marguerite Julliot / Marinette Fenoyer (sopranos)
GUILLOT - Emile de Creus (tenor)
DE BRETIGNY - Jean Vieuille / Andre Gaudin (baritones)
L'HOTELIER - Paul Payan.
Elie Cohen with the Chorus and Orchestra of the Opera-Comique, Paris.
No libretto. Summary of the plot keyed into the track listings. Thumbnail biographies of Feraldy, Rogatchewsky, Villier and Guenot--plus rather less on Cohen.
Disk 1 - Act I, tracks 1-10; Act II, tracks 11-14; Act III, Scene 1, tracks 15-20; 76:08. Disk 2 - Act III, scene 1 (continued), tracks 1-4; Act III, Scene 2, tracks 5-20; Act IV, tracks 11-15; Act V, tracks 16-17; 65:25.
This is a typical performing version of its time with some minor cuts and a few omitted musical transitions.
When asked why he was writing an opera on the subject of "Manon" only a decade after the premiere of Massenet's popular work, Puccini made some slightly disparaging remarks about French perfumes and minuets. It so happens that I think Puccini was right and that his "Manon Lescaut" is a better opera. Those of you who hold the opposite opinion--and I am sure that would include the previous reviewer, "Charlus"--feel free to dismiss me out-of-hand as a pasta-swilling, verismo-bonged yahoo. In fact, I strongly recommend the comments of the learned and passionate "Charlus" here and elsewhere in which he (or she) eloquently defines and defends the long-gone authentic French performing style.
I entirely agree with "Charlus" and Mr. Morrison that this recording is an excellent example of that style. This "Manon" is fully as French as a Citroen automobile. I further agree that despite its age, this is a fine performance--possibly even the finest recorded performance! (An earlier, mechanically recorded version, perhaps even more stylish, is capable of being admired, but because of its sonics can hardly give much pleasure.)
But ... the British have a word to describe certain things; they call them "twee." I think it is a particularly unpleasant word--a word of total dismissal in an amused and ironic tone. (There are some, of course, who use the word as a term of admiration--they, themselves, are twee.)
The authentic French performance style and the authentic French singing style are perilously close to being twee at the best of times. Here, with this recording, they yield a pleasing and highly satisfactory performance. Any more of it, though, and there is clear and present danger of sugar shock. (A couple of years later, Elie Cohen conducted a superb rendering of Massenet's "Werther" which is a better performance than this "Manon" because the composer's musical idiom is less ... er ... decorative and because the Werther, tenor Georges Thill, was manifestly not a twee performer.)
Elie Cohen is that rarest of things, a significant musical personage who has almost entirely eluded the internet. He seems to have made his debut at the Opera-Comique in 1922. He regularly conducted both ballet and opera there. By the mid-1930s, he had made three complete opera recordings, "Manon," "Werther" and "Carmen," all of which are excellent. At that point he becomes invisible.
Germaine Feraldy (1894-1949), was based at the Opera-Comique from 1924 to 1942 and was regularly in demand outside of France. Her light, bright, precise voice is exactly in the French style. She was highly adept in an almost conversational style of operatic singing. Joseph Rogatchewsky (1891-1985) was born a Ukrainian but clearly was French in every other sense. His Des Grieux is admirable, precise, elegant, but (intentionally, I think) not very passionate.
This is a historic recording. If it had been recorded in 1959 rather than 1929, it would be a strong candidate as the recording of choice for "Manon." It remains an excellent choice as a second or back-up "Manon" and for those who can bear non-DDD sound, it may well be the one most often played.
Five authentically French stars.