Massenet: Werther

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Massenet
LABELS: EMI Réferences
WORKS: Werther
PERFORMER: Georges Thill, Ninon Vallin, Germaine Feraldy, Marcel Roque, Armand Narçon, Louis Guenot, Henri Niel; Théâtre National de l’Opéra-Comique Chorus & Orchestra/Elie Cohen
CATALOGUE NO: CHS 7 63195 2 ADD mono
Each time I hear Georges Thill sing ‘Je ne sais si je veille, ou si je rêve encore’ in this classic account of Werther, a shiver of excitement goes down my back. The dark, baritonal, Wagnerian timbre, the perfect marriage of the French text and Massenet’s music, these are qualities unheard of in a Werther of the post-war period. Indeed, the entire performance by the two most famous French singers of their generation, and an Opéra-Comique ensemble under Elie Cohen, remains a paragon of a now virtually extinct French style of music-making. Cohen acknowledges Massenet’s debt to Wagner without overburdening the French delicacy of the score, and it is a delight to hear evenly produced voices singing such idiomatic French. In the great set pieces, Werther’s ‘Invocation’ and ‘Pourquoi me réveiller?’, Charlotte’s ‘Air des lettres’ and ‘Ah, mon courage m’abandonne!’, Thill and Vallin give object-lessons, unsurpassed by any of their successors in complete recordings (though de los Angeles and Gedda, also on EMI, come close).

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The drawbacks for modern listeners are obvious: the recording, made in 1931, is not kind to the orchestra and there are uncomfortable transitions between the side-breaks on the original 78s. But those prepared to tolerate ‘historic’ sound will discover a performance which seems to grow in stature with the passing years. Hugh Canning