LOpera de Paris Malibran CDRG215

L’Opéra de Paris 1900-1960
Une histoire sonore
Malibran Music CDRG215 [10 CDs: 788]

Here is treasure indeed for the diehard devotee of vintage operatic recordings. Subtitled “Une histoire sonore” (A History in Sound) this anthology from the Malibran label, endorsed by Nicolas Joël, Director of the Paris Opera, documents six glorious decades of performances at the Palais Garnier. It comprises ten very-well-filled discs featuring the works of the greatest and of some less-often-encountered composers, sung by over a hundred singers who were part of the ongoing roster of in-house French, or French-speaking, artists of a quality such as can no longer be found. It bears ample testimony to the depth of talent that the Opéra could call upon over that extended era, so great that there was no need to import singers of other nationalities.

The “Big Names” among opera composers are all represented by the arias, duets and ensembles here: Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Mozart, Berlioz, Gounod, Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Gluck, Donizetti, Rossini, Strauss, Mussorgsky and Weber alongside what are now perhaps somewhat less-performed composers: Meyerbeer, Rameau, Cherubini, Rimsky Korsakov, Borodin and Halévy, then a few which must now be considered to be comparatively distinct rarities, such as works by Auber, Lalo, Reyer, Chabrier, Magnard, Rabaud, Enesco, Honegger, Dukas, Fauré, Roussel and Poulenc, to a whole host of names and works many of which I confess to never even having heard or even heard of, by Bruneau, Février, d’Indy, Duvernoy, Rousseau, Paladilhe, Georges, Leroux, Bourgault-Ducoudray, Dupont, Canteloube, Laparra, Ibert, Hue, Sauguet, Milhaud, Tomasi, d’Ollone, Büsser and Wolf-Ferrari – but that, in a sense, adds an extra intrigue for the prospective purchaser, as the compilation is bound to introduce even the seasoned collector to new works, some of which, as with now neglected singers mentioned below, are deserving of a revived appreciation.

Many of the recordings here derive from the collection of Guy Dumazert, husband of soprano Renée Doria and priority is given to music recorded live from the stage of the Paris Opera. The bulk of it is representative of Grand French Opera, beginning with works such as Auber’s La muette de Portici (1828) and Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (1829), but it is mostly from the great age of that genre in the second half of the 19C. However, the first disc presents Rameau, Gluck, Mozart and Cherubini, discs 5 and 6 are devoted to Verdi and Wagner respectively, discs 7, 8 and 9 contain a great many 20C works – no fewer than seventy-one new operas, mostly by French composers, were premiered at the Paris Opera during the thirty-year directorship of Jacques Rouche between 1914 and 1945 – and the last CD offers a medley of German, Russian and Italian excerpts. Some recordings are from other sources but are here because they are close as we can get to what was heard on that stage. The cut-off date of 1960 was decided upon as it marked the disbanding of the regular troupe of Paris Opera singers and the arrival of a new Director with a different, modernising agendum. (Oddly, given its iconic status, there is no Carmen – but that is because it did not enter the repertoire until November 1959!)

Then we look at the individual singers, among whom the names range from those still widely remembered and admired today to those who should be. Obviously I can write only from my own experience and others will be familiar with and already esteem singers I do not know, but I would include in the first category artists such as Georges Thill – surely the greatest French tenor – alongside a whole clutch of other renowned French tenors like César Vezzani*, Paul Franz, Alain Vanzo, José Luccioni, Georges Liccioni, the Australian-born, but naturalised French, Albert Lance and the Russian-born Francophile Joseph Rogatchewsky, then Robert Massard, Gabriel Bacquier, Rita Gorr, Renée Doria, Régine Crespin, Guy Chauvet, Marcel Journet, Pol Plançon, Vanni-Marcoux, Ernest Blanc, Germaine Lubin and many more singers who were also part of the Opéra Comique company. Among those who deserve to be better remembered on the evidence of the extracts here are Suzanne Juyol, André Pernet, Léon Beyle, Paul Franz, Géori Boué (who died as recently as 2017, aged 98) and Suzanne Sarroca (who died only this year, aged 96 and sadly made very few recordings), who may indeed still be highly regarded by cognoscenti but are less familiar to the wider opera-loving public.

Many important conductors are present here, too: Eugène Bigot, Elie Cohen, Roger Desormière, Jésus Etcheverry, Louis Fourestier, André Cluytens, Pierre Dervaux, Georges Sébastian, Georges Prêtre and Serge Baudo are all names which will be familiar to the collector.

I cannot hope to cover every recording here within the scope of this review – nor would the reader want me to; let me instead adumbrate some highlights.

Beginning at the beginning, the first voice we hear is that of Rita Gorr in Rameau’s Les Indes galantes in a radio broadcast played and sung with great energy and animation by the Paris Opera orchestra and a host of names which will be known to lovers of French singing in the 1950s and 60s. We then jump to an aria from Castor et Pollux, elegantly sung by forgotten tenor Léon Beyle. The date of the recording is not given but it is clearly from the dawn of the technology and a little online research reveals it to be 17 June 1913. We return to good mono sound in the singing of a dramatic aria from Hippolyte et Aricie by soprano Geneviève Moizan with chorus. Even better and in stereo are Guy Chauvet and Rita Gorr again in beautiful, stately arias from Gluck’s Alceste. She is a tad strenuous but impressively big-voiced. The contribution of an accomplished flute soloist precedes then alternates and accompanies the aforementioned tenor Joseph Rogatchewsky whose diction is so clear that anyone with some knowledge of French will have no cause to regret the absence of a libretto. Famous as Isolde – she sang the role 275 times – Suzanne Balguerie wraps her big dramatic soprano around “Ô malheureuse Iphigénie” and a young-voiced – almost unrecognisably so – Gabriel Bacquier makes a pleasing job in 1962 of “J’ai perdu mon Euridice”, albeit obviously in the baritone transposition now very much out of favour. Three first-rate French singers next each tackle an aria from Don Juan/Don Giovanni, then we have two arias from each of Les Noces de Figaro and La Flûte enchantée (in French, of course). There will always be an air of freakishness about Mado Robin’s steam-whistle soprano produced in alt under extreme constriction, but her contributions are inevitably… interesting. This fascinating first disc closes with two arias from Cherubini’s Médée by Rita Gorr once more, singing in Italian and preceded by a beautiful bassoon obbligato, and Andrée Esposito, singing in French “Hymen! Viens dissiper une vaine frayeur”. As a lyric soprano, she is perhaps too light of voice for the role, but she sings most feelingly.

I personally find the music of CD 2 of less interest and most of the recordings are in more challenging sound, being so old, but it certainly features an array of some fine, properly registered and developed voices, the best thing by far being Vezzani’s Eléazar, mentioned in the note below – and it must be said that Léon Campagnola’s “Ô paradis” isn’t a patch on Caruso’s from four years earlier. Also standing out, however, is the quality of Marcel Journet’s voice and the peculiarity of John Sullivan’s dramatic tenor in the killer aria “Asile héréditaire” from Guillaume Tell, about which I am still undecided owing to what sounds, on 78 at least, to exhibit excessive vibrato but also such ease and power. More decidedly to my taste are the contents of the third CD, especially the combination of my beloved Berlioz and Georges Thill. Did any singer ever have such perfect diction, seamless legato and beautiful tone throughout his range, allied to such sensitive musicality and expressive depth? Very few, methinks. The perfection of Thill’s delivery of the aria from La damnation de Faust – included here as this was presented at the Palais Garnier in a Maurice Béjart production – is all the more remarkable given that it was recorded live in concert in Denmark. Two fine excerpts from Les Troyens complete the Berlioz section; then we hear arias from five Gounod operas, including “Salut! Demeure” from Faust, sung by a young, sweet-voiced Alain Vanzo, showcasing a fine diminuendo on the top C. José Luccioni – a tenor almost on the same level as Thill – sings grandly an aria from Polyeucte, then we hear excerpts from six of Saint-Saëns’ operas, all now neglected apart from Samson et Dalila, in which Luccioni again features largely. His aria “Arrêtez, ô mes frères!” is draw from the complete recording which was my recommendation for the best studio set in mono sound in my survey of the opera. Denise Scharley and Suzanne Lefort both make a sensuous Dalila in their respective arias.

The samples from the other works by Saint-Saëns display some remarkable voices, such as the stentorian yet agile contralto of the Belgian Meyrianne Héglon but are musically less inspired, providing some indication of why the operas from which come have fallen out of the repertoire, the exception being the aria “Qui donc commande” from Henri VIII, powerfully sung by bass-baritone Charles Cambon, the Abimélech in the Samson et Dalila recommended above and the older colleague who was so helpful and encouraging to the young ingénu Robert Massard when he arrived untutored and inexperienced at the Paris Opera.

Much the same observation may be made about the plethora of Massenet’s operas on CD 4; several are regular repertoire items whereas others are virtually never performed – but it is interesting to hear individual arias so well delivered as per here. My favourite number is “Vision fugitive”, so masterfully sung by recently aforementioned baritone Robert Massard: as with Thill, legato, vocal colour, emotional engagement and complexity, tonal variety, sheer beauty and power of sound – they are all there. As on the second CD, Marcel Journet again impresses, as does Léon Beyle, just as he did on CD 1. All four excerpts from Thaïs are especially satisfactory: some of Massenet’s best music sung by first-rate voices.

It was Verdi who archly nicknamed the Paris Opera “La Grande Boutique”, as his relationship with it, although successful, was not often a happy one. As with Massenet and Wagner, a whole CD, no. 5, is dedicated to his music here. Outstanding among the singers here is Paul Franz, who sings an impeccable “O céleste Aïda”, even if he doesn’t attempt the concluding diminuendo – and albeit that it sounds odd in French – but that was the standard practice for all the Verdi here in that era, with the exception of Mario Del Monaco’s familiar Otello, Gigli’s Alfredo and Albert Lance’s excellent singing of “Di tu se fedele” from a live performance of Un ballo in maschera. Equally impressive is the sonorous Pol Plançon in King Philip’s nocturnal lament – but that has long been a famous Victor recording. I cannot help but wish that rather than Ernest Blanc, one of Robert Massard’s recordings of Rigoletto’s “Courtisans, vile race et damnée” had been used, as it was his signature aria in a role he sang forty times, and Blanc’s gifts could surely have been better illustrated by choosing another of his recordings (and indeed I think he is better served by his concert performance of the “Evening Star” aria from Tannhäuser on the Wagner disc) . Massard’s frequent co-singer, Renée Doria, too, is superb in her aria from La traviata but the otherwise admirable Luccioni demonstrates that French vowels do not help him navigate Otello’s music as he is clearly struggling, beginning to shout, and I question the advisability of the inclusion of his duet with an ordinary René Bianco – especially if you contrast that with Del Monaco’s contribution here. Eidé Norena, however, is a delightful Gilda, floating her high notes delectably.

Wagner would have had no problem with his works being sung in French, as are they all here. Singer after singer, beginning with Suzanne Sarroca’s Senta, impresses with a firmness and amplitude of voice which would make them Wagner stars today yet many will barely be known even to aficionados. Thill is once again marvellous as Lohengrin, and Journet, in one of the longest extracts here, is already into his early 60s but sounding tireless and majestic as Wotan – as is Coppola’s conducting – but every item here is superb. (Several of the tracks here may also be found on a Romophone disc “Wagner en français”.)

Discs 7, 8 and 9, take us into what will be a lot of uncharted territory for most opera-lovers, although more familiar music occasionally punctuates the voyage of discovery. A plumb is Georges Liccioni’s absolutely lovely rendering of “Vainement, ma bien aimée” from Lalo’s Le roi d’Ys; rarer are the extracts from Act I of the incomplete Briséis by Chabrier, languorous and erotic. Charles Cambon sings nobly in a declamatory aria from the forgotten Patrie by Paladilhe and Thill is heard singing his heart out rehearsing an aria from Canteloube’s failed Vercingétorix, but I cannot say that much else on the seventh disc strikes me as unjustly neglected; I have, for example, in the past tried unsuccessfully to cultivate a taste for works such as Magnard’s Gercoeur. CD 8 begins with excerpts from Henri Rabaud’s Marouf, which I much enjoyed when surveying Robert Massard’s discography (Robert Massard – Part II); Roger Bourdin is very fine and yet again Thill excels in that and two arias from Rabaud’s Rolande, le mauvais garçon and I am not surprised that some of his works have recently been revived – although his conduct as Director of the Paris Conservatoire during the German occupation probably at least in part accounts for a distaste for – or a delay in remounting – his work. Less musically conservative than Rabaud, Enesco and Honneger had their operas mounted in the Palais Garnier with starry casts and you will be able to judge from the extended excerpts here if their music appeals, as it could certainly not be better performed, directed by Charles Bruck and Pierre Dervaux respectively. The photograph of Geori Boué travestita as L’Aiglon, Napoleon’s son, in the opera jointly written by Honegger and Jacques Ibert, is very striking and the music is oddly seductive. Suzanne Balguerie reappears to close the disc with two arias from Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue. CD 9 opens with a powerful excerpt; the surging Wagnerian – Straussian? – conclusion to Fauré’s Pénélope headed by Georges Jouatte in terrific form despite being nearly sixty at the time of the concert performance recorded here; unfortunately there is a lot of distortion but we can still hear Fauré’s inspiration – and Ingelbrecht’s masterly direction. This is followed by the rich-voiced Solange Michel singing an aria from Roussel’s exotic Padmavati. I do not find much to delight me in Sauget’s or Milhaud’s operas but the samples from them here are certainly sufficiently extensive to give a flavour of their character and are sung by first-rate casts. By far the best known opera on this disc is Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmelites, from which we hear three short passages. The disc concludes with an aria from each of three operas by three composers of whom I have never heard; they have…curiosity value, I think.

We return to more conventional, mainstream operatic repertoire for the last disc and I admit to finding its contents far more congenial. There are many fine things here, from Cluytens’ typically animated account of the overture from Weber’s Oberon to Eidé Norena’s wonderfully pure and agile aria from Rimsky Korsakov’s Le Coq d’or to André Pernet’s smooth, magisterial, then anguished, Boris Godunov – whose music, for some reason, sits very well in French. The set concludes with three engaging extracts from Der Rosenkavalier: something of a rarity in Fritz Busch tenderly conducting Germain Hoerner’s Marschallin; Régine Crespin and Suzanne Sarroca sovereign in the final duet in Act I and the finale to Act II, Lucien Huberty making an amusing, chocolatey-voiced Ochs.

The presentation of this box set is appealing: a sixty-page booklet with a full listing, an extensive essay in French – very well translated into English – by musicologist and critic José Pons on the history of the Opéra de Paris and the programme here, and some lovely vintage photographs both in the booklet and on the covers of the cardboard CD sleeves.

For more information regarding the contents, please visit the Malibran website, which, puzzlingly, provides detailed listings only for the first four discs. It does, however, include in the product description an outline of the contents of each disc written by the same author of the notes, and the website of the German supplier jpc gives more detail and samples of every CD here. (Nor, incidentally, do I see why Malibran lists the set as “Le Palais Garnier” rather than “Opéra de Paris” – but let that pass…)

Ralph Moore

* In fact the inclusion of Vezzani is an anomaly, as he is the only singer here never to have sung at the Palais Garnier, but it was decided to include his singing of the most famous aria from La Juive as it is so fine and the opera itself was so important in the history of the theatre.

Availability: Malibran