JULES MASSENET (1842 – 1912): Manon—Annick Massis (Manon), Alessandro Liberatore (Le chevalier des Grieux), Pierre Doyen (Lescaut), Roger Joakim (Le comte des Grieux), Papuna Tchuradze (Guillot de Morfontaine), Patrick Delcour (De Brétigny), Sandra Pastrana (Poussette), Alexise Yerna (Rosette), Sabine Conzen (Javotte); Chœur et Orchestre de l’Opéra Royal de Wallonie – Liège; Patrick Davin, conductor [Recorded during live performances at l’Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, Belgique, in October 2014; Dynamic CDS 7751/2; 2 CDs, 151:49 (also available on DVD – Dynamic 37751); Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), and major music retailers]
When Abbé Antoine François Prévost’s controversial novella L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut was first published in 1731, it is doubtful that its author, no matter how cognizant he was of the quality of his work, could have imagined the lasting influence that the seventh and final installment in his Mémoires et aventures d'un homme de qualité would exert on literature and art in general for generations to come. Educated by Jesuits and eventually accepted as a postulant by Benedictines, Prévost was as unconventional a man of the cloth as he was a man of letters. The morals of his Manon Leacaut and Chevalier des Grieux are decidedly more pragmatic than traditionally Christian, but there is at the heart of Prévost’s tale of the troubled lovers a grim explication of the repercussions of envy, greed, and recklessness. Presumptuous though it may be, it is not difficult to see in the Abbé des Grieux of the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice an autobiographical portrait of the Abbé Prévost glumly going through the motions of his Benedictine duties. Whether or not the author identified with his creations on a profoundly personal level, the vibrancy with which the characters in L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut are drawn is unquestionably a principal reason for the work’s appeal to later generations of artists. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, Jean-Louis Aumer’s 1830 ballet and Daniel Auber’s 1856 opéra comique, both entitled Manon Lescaut, had firmly established Prévost’s Manon and Des Grieux as enduring presences in European art; presences that would continue to expand in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries on canvas, on film, and via musical settings including Hans Werner Henze’s 1952 Lyrisches Drama Boulevard Solitude.
Premièred at Paris’s famed Opéra-Comique on 19 January 1884, Jules Massenet’s Manon is both its composer’s best-known opera and, alongside Giacomo Puccini’s breakthrough 1893 Manon Lescaut, one of the two most enduring operatic adaptations of Abbé Prévost’s novel. Performed a thousand times at the Opéra-Comique in the quarter-century after its first outing there, Manon was immediately recognized in and beyond France as the pinnacle of Massenet’s writing for the stage. A decade later, Massenet revisited the milieux of Prévost’s protagonists in Le portrait of Manon, an opéra-comique in one act in which the aged Des Grieux ultimately sanctions his nephew’s marriage to a young woman upon learning that she is Manon’s niece, but it was his Manon that both solidified Prévost’s legacy and secured his own position among the revered composers of opera. Now, 134 years after the opera’s first performance, Manon’s fortunes often seem imperiled by the decline of the legitimate French school of singing. At New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where Manon received its company première on 16 January 1895, with the ideal cast of Massenet’s beloved Sibyl Sanderson as Manon, Jean de Reszke as Des Grieux, and Pol Plançon as Comte des Grieux, the opera has been presented 272 times between its first hearing and 28 March 2015, the date of its most recent performance at the MET, whereas Gounod’s Faust and Bizet’s Carmen have been performed 752 and 1,001 times since their respective MET premières in 1883 and 1884. In recent seasons, singers of the caliber of Natalie Dessay and Diana Damrau have argued Manon’s case in opera houses throughout the world, but not even their best efforts have fully restored the Gallic sparkle that shone on archaic recordings of the opera featuring Fanny Heldy and Germaine Féraldy. Sparkle is what the heroine of this new Dynamic recording offers bountifully, giving listeners a rare Manon with a portrayal of Prévost’s and Massenet’s complex title character that can be appreciated without serious reservation.
Recorded during 2014 performances at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, also taped and released on DVD by Dynamic, this recording documents a production by Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera that updated the opera’s action from Prévost’s time to that of a more modern, Louis Malle-esque France. On these discs, the only aural evidence of the production’s revised setting is the revving of the getaway vehicle’s engine as Des Grieux is abducted at the end of Act Two. Hardly what Massenet imagined for the scene more than a century ago, it is very effective on disc, the motor’s growling leaving no doubt that Des Grieux has been spirited away. Under the baton of conductor Patrick Davin, the Liège choral and orchestral forces give performances that are alternately sinewy and sumptuous as the score requires. The choral singing is impressive throughout the performance, especially in the Cours-la-Reine scene in Act Three, and, if not unfailingly first-rate, the orchestral playing is polished and often beautiful. The wit of Massenet’s orchestrations benefits from Davin’s handling of the score, which is confident despite tempi that occasionally hinder the momentum of scenes, not least in the opening minutes of Act One. In both the large-scaled public scenes and the moments of greatest intimacy between Manon and Des Grieux, however, Davin displays masterful control over the musical forces under his command, reveling in the contrasting grandeur and introspection. Utilizing the edition of the score with sung recitatives published by Heugel and Company, Davin maintains admirable continuity even when the energy of the performance intermittently wanes, enabling the cast to delve deeply into the nuances of Massenet’s music and Henri Meilhac’s and Philippe Gille’s libretto.
As Guillot de Morfontaine and De Brétigny, tenor Papuna Tchuradze and baritone Patrick Delcour sing excellently, bringing their characters to life with secure, vibrant tone and animated, intelligent use of text. The callous, opportunistic aspects of both men are revealed without either of them wholly descending into base villainy: Tchuradze’s and Delcour’s expertly-judged performances provide the antagonism required by the drama but spare the listener melodramatic excesses and ugly sounds. The trio of Spanish soprano Sandra Pastrana, Belgian mezzo-soprano Alexise Yerna, and Belgian soprano Sabine Conzen make Poussette, Rosette, and Javotte far more than the twittering ciphers that they are in many performances of Manon. Skillfully and mellifluously blending their voices, the ladies sing delightfully, creating distinctive vignettes that cast the ladies individually and collectively as effective foils for Manon. Pastrana’s and Conzen’s upper registers glisten, and Yerna’s tones are secure throughout the range of Rosette’s music. Poor singing in any of the opera’s supporting rôles is disfiguring though rarely altogether ruinous, but an ensemble of voices as capable as these markedly enriches this Manon.
The Comte des Grieux of baritone Roger Joakim is a commanding figure in the drama as an aptly authoritarian father for Des Grieux. Singing robustly throughout the performance, he gives a moving account of ‘Épouse quelque brave fille’ in the second tableau of Act Three, pleading with his son to put perpetuating the family name ahead of his newfound religious convictions. In Act Four, Joakim voices ‘Oui, je viens t’arracher à la honte qui chaque jour grandit sur toi’ powerfully. His refusal to aid Manon is harsh, but there is great warmth in Joakim’s Comte’s interactions with his son. As Manon’s cousin Lescaut, baritone Pierre Doyen complements Joakim’s strengths, singing handsomely and declaiming the text with burly clarity. His voice rings out impressively in ‘C’est bon! Je perdrais la mémoire quand il s’agit de boire!’ in Act One, and he chides Manon gently but potently in ‘Ne bronchez pas, soyez gentille.’ In solo lines and ensembles, Doyen’s singing is always noticed, and he plays his part in the opera’s plot with avidity. Lescaut’s ‘Frappez, je donnerais ma vie’ in Act Five is delivered with telling vehemence. As Lescaut’s realization that attempting to free Manon from imprisonment by force is futile turns to desperation and despair, Doyen’s tones become more rather than less focused, lending the actuality of Manon’s sentence added sting. Both Joakim’s and Doyen’s performances recall another Belgian singer with a significant relationship with Manon, José van Dam.
Italian tenor Alessandro Liberatore made his rôle début as the idealistic Chevalier des Grieux in this production, and it was an auspicious beginning for a characterization that, as recorded, already makes all of the points requested by Massenet. Liberatore’s vowel placement and basic timbre, especially above the stave, are often reminiscent of Roberto Alagna at his best, and the Italianate ardor of his singing—a quality that need not be excluded from performances of French repertory—compensates for occasional coarseness, uncertain intonation, and conspicuous effort. Des Grieux is a high part in terms of tessitura, but Liberatore copes encouragingly, the upper register projected firmly if not always smoothly. It is apparent that the tenor is a shrewd, capable musician, and the character he creates is therefore all the more believable. From des Grieux’s first sighting of Manon in Act One to the opera’s final scene, Liberatore sings captivatingly, never allowing the listener to forget that, once seen, Manon never leaves des Grieux’s heart. This is palpably expressed in Liberatore’s ardent voicing of ‘Enchanteresse! Manon, vous êtes la maîtresse de mon cœur’ in Act One: so zealously does Liberatore utter des Grieux’s words that his infatuation with the bewitching girl before him overtakes the listener. Joining his voice with Manon’s, this des Grieux sings ‘Nous vivrons à Paris tous les deux’ with a sense of purpose that makes his love at first sight seem inevitable.
The first of Des Grieux’s well-known arias, Act Two’s ‘En fermant les yeux, je vois là-bas une humble retraite,’ is phrased artfully, Liberatore’s vocalism just strenuous enough to remind the hearer of the incredible difficulty of the music. Battling uselessly in the second tableau of Act Three to rid himself of the memories of Manon that haunt him in the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice in which he has sought refuge in holy orders, he sings ‘Ah! fuyez, douce image à mon âme trop chère’ with bitter self-recrimination and blazing intensity. The change in the voice as Des Grieux sings ‘Non, j’avais écrit sur la sable ce rêve insensé d’un amour’ could not be greater: the fire is not extinguished but refined, the fervor channeled into a stream of molten silver that flows through Massenet’s sensual melodies. The conflagration grows hotter still with Liberatore’s singing of ‘Manon, Manon sphinx étonnant, véritable sirène!’ in Act Four, his burnished timbre conveying the depths of Des Grieux’s emotions. In this performance, the tragedy in the opera’s final act is devastating largely because of the spontaneity of Liberatore’s singing and the immediacy of his reactions to his Manon: rather than seeming like a well-rehearsed tenor singing his part correctly, he sounds like an anguished young man whose one true love is dying in his arms. His pained articulation of ‘Manon! pauvre Manon! Je te vois enchaînée avec ces misérables,’ the words too hurtful to him to be uttered, is at once both wrenching and alluring. There is no question that Manon is the fulcrum upon which Massenet’s drama balances, but Liberatore provides this Manon with a Des Grieux of equal grace and gravity.
Shamefully underrepresented on disc, French soprano Annick Massis is here a Manon of exceptional charisma and absolute, almost insouciant comfort with the music—music of a degree of difficulty that prompted another memorable Manon, Beverly Sills, to refer to the rôle as ‘the French Isolde.’ There is little Wagner in Manon, and at her most tempestuous Massenet’s heroine faces nothing like the orchestra avalanches that Isolde must withstand. In stamina, in managing the dispensation of her vocal resources in arduous music, and in preserving the purity of the upper register without exhausting the octave-and-a-half below, though, a Manon faces ordeals that are not unlike those that an Isolde must conquer. That Massis surmounts these challenges can be plainly heard on these discs, but the technical assurance and dramatic acuity with which she sings the rôle will surprise even her staunchest admirers. Not since the young Mirella Freni sang the part in Italian at La Scala in 1969 has a soprano of international stature so unaffectedly conveyed both sound and demeanor utterly right for a young woman en route au couvent.
When Massis finesses the melodic line of ‘Je suis encor tout étourdie’ in Act One, it is impossible to doubt her innocence, and the wide-eyed wonder with which she shapes ‘Par aventure, peut-être avons-nous mieux une voiture la chaise d’un Seigneur’ is nothing short of perfect for the sentiment conjured by the words. Like Liberatore, Massis imparts a suggestion of destiny fulfilled in Manon’s first scene with Des Grieux, and soprano unites with tenor in a rapturous but engagingly personal account of ‘Nous vivrons à Paris tous les deux!’ As Massis voices ‘On l’appelle Manon, elle eut hier seize ans’ in Act Two, there is a momentary notion of the Violetta of Act Two of Verdi’s La traviata having melded with the Cio-Cio San of Act One of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the fragile girl finding herself in a world for which she was not prepared and which she does not fully understand. In Massis’s performance, Manon’s ‘Adieu, notre petite table, qui, nous réunit si souvent!’ is not a melancholic farewell to a sort of adolescent ‘playing house’ but an acceptance of the unalterable farce in which she has cast herself and the necessity of playing her part in it.
This element of fatalism is manifested again in Act Three, in which the carefree façade that Massis’s Manon fabricates never hides the character’s vexation and vulnerability. The easy, spot-on top D with which she concludes ‘Je marche sur tous les chemins’ in the Cours-la-Reine tableau is but one of the attractions of her performance of the number: still more appealing are the lilting girlishness of her delivery and her unassailable intonation, the latter quality proving commendably consistent throughout the opera. The famous Gavotte, ‘Obéissons quand leur voix appelle,’ is sung with a proficiency not surprising in an acclaimed Lucia di Lammermoor: on recordings, only Bidú Sayão and Victoria de los Ángeles rival Massis’s performance of the Gavotte, and the French soprano’s voice is more evenly-produced in the lower octave than Sayão’s and sturdier and steadier at the top of the range than de los Ángeles’s. In the Act Three tableau set in the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice, Massis’s statement of ‘Oui! Je fis cruelle et coupable!’ is crippling: what response is there to such a plea other than absolution? Her repetitions of ‘Je t’aime!’ are inflected with shifting attitudes, tentative and almost frightened at first but growing ever bolder.
Massis evinces an evolving determination in Act Four that stops just short of ferocity. She has acted foolishly but is no man’s fool, and there is a core of steel beneath the satin of her singing of ‘Notre opulence est envolée.’ The unforced expressivity with which she molds ‘Mon être tout entier, ma vie, et mon amour!’ and ‘Ce bruit de l’or ce rire et ses éclats joyeux!’ is enlightening, each note and word weighted precisely as the music dictates. Literally and figuratively, the landscapes of Act Five are vastly different from all that came before, the revelries of earlier scenes crushed by the fruits of humanity’s darkest impulses. In such a setting, Massis’s voicing of ‘Seul amour de mon âme!’ is a ray of pure light, her pristine sound distilled to an essence of emoting through song. The text motivates the flickering heat of the soprano’s articulation of ‘Ah! je sens une pure flamme m’éclairer de ses feux,’ and the directness with which she sings Manon’s last words, ‘Et c’est là l’histoire de Manon Lescaut,’ is heartbreaking. Admittedly, Massenet’s and his librettists’ ending can be slightly silly when performed indifferently, but for Massis, and because of her stunningly complete vocal and dramatic embodiment of the rôle, this performance truly is the simply-told story of Manon Lescaut.
As noted an interpreter of French repertory as British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham is cited as having remarked that he would have willing sacrificed all six of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti in order to have the score of Massenet’s Manon. Beecham of course had the luxury of living during the last stand of French opera in the magnificent tradition of the Nineteenth Century, a final burst of Gallic esprit for which he was responsible in part. Were he hearing today’s performances of the opera that he so loved (and today’s period-appropriate renderings of the Brandenburgs), would he still feel compelled to readily discard Bach’s works in favor of Massenet’s? Beecham also had the luxury of insightfulness: he could discern in the pages of Massenet’s score the splendors that have too often been obscured in performances of Manon in the past three decades. It is imperfect, as any human effort is doomed to be, but this Opéra Royal de Wallonie Manon is far closer to the kind of performance that Beecham might have imagined. With as distinguished a Manon as has appeared on disc in a generation and an earnest, impassioned Des Grieux who loves her, it is difficult to imagine Prévost, Massenet, Beecham, or any listener who hears this recording failing to love her, too.
Les amants malheureuses: Tenor Alessandro Liberatore as Chevalier des Grieux and soprano Annick Massis as Manon Lescaut in Opéra Royal de Wallonie’s 2014 production of Jules Massenet’s Manon
[Photo © 2014 by Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège]