It is now almost obligatory to preface any review of "Manon" with Sir Thomas Beecham's celebrated bon mot: "I would give the whole of the Brandenburg Concertos for Massenet's Manon, and would think I had vastly profited by the exchange". Like many things that Beecham said, I'm not sure that he really meant it and I equally doubt whether it tells us anything much about the comparative quality of either work, but it is true that "Manon" is, with "Werther", representative of Massenet's best music. It has remained perennially popular, although performances have been slightly more scarce of late, perhaps for dearth of suitable singers. By the time of the composer's death in 1912 it had notched up seven hundred performances at the Opéra Comique and by 1950 that number had risen to 2000. Many of the slightly older among us cherish memories of the superb ENO performances headed by Valerie Masterson in the 70's and 80's but it really needs to be sung in French by a French cast to feel entirely comme il faut.
Meanwhile, the authentic performing idiom of this quintessentially French opera has been gradually diluted by the influence of the more homogenised, "international" style which inevitably characterises modern opera. That is all the more reason to prize this performance as wholly representative of the Opéra Comique in the mid-50's. Much ink has been expended extolling the virtues of this recording, so I do not propose to go over old ground: it is as close to perfect as the technology and performing practice of the era would permit. I do not pretend to maintain an unqualified admiration for everything Victoria de los Angeles recorded; indeed, I have never quite "got" the adulation accorded her by the generation previous to mine. In some quarters, to criticise her is to invite the same kind of opprobrium vented by fanatical fans of Callas whenever you say a word to suggest that La Divina occasionally had feet of clay, but just as Callas was unbeatable in certain rôles, de los Angeles is here at her peak, in her best rôle as the delectable tart-with-a-heart Manon. Her French is excellent, her affect perfect and her ability to caress Massenet's sinuous melodies unparalleled. The plaintive, girlish quality of her tone, which I sometimes find sentimental, is here ideal. Her coloratura is more than serviceable and the top D in the Cours la Reine scene is pretty impressive, too, for a singer who never used it in a live performance. Henri Legay is the kind of French tenor whose last representative was the late Alain Vanzo. There is no reason, when he sings as elegantly as this, to regret his lack of heft - nor the fact that no less a tenor than Jussi Björling turned down the invitation to record Des Grieux. He is certainly passionate when required even if the outbursts of the St Sulpice scene push him to his vocal limits. The tenderness of his conversations with Manon is entirely convincing; he is always the callow, slightly ineffectual romantic, out of his depth in Lescaut's world of gambling, roistering and intrigue. There is an essential rightness about Monteux's expert handling of the score - everything is perfectly paced, even if he does permit a small cut at the end of the first act, which allows the act to end with the lovers' duet but obscures the sense of the plot. The French cast knows exactly how to inflect and time the quick-fire exchanges. The sharpness of their enunciation is a delight; what a pleasure it is to hear perfect French when so many more modern recordings of French operas are compromised by singers unable to encompass the subtleties of its pronunciation. The clean mono sound is oddly atmospheric; it is almost as if too lush or rich a stereo sound would rob the performance of its period charm.
Recordings of "Manon" have, by and large, been many and successful. If you want a modern stereo recording, the EMI set with Gheorghiu, Alagna and José van Dam, ably conducted by Pappano, is very satisfactory - but this one is special: it's a slice of history which demands almost no forbearance on the part of the listener with regard to sound quality, whereas previous historical recordings inevitably sound ...well, historical.
I returned to this set after an interval of many years and was delighted to discover that it was even better than I had remembered it from my LP's. It's virtually perfect.