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Georges BIZET (1838 - 1875)
Carmen – Marguerite Mérentié (mezzo-soprano)
Michaëla – Aline Vallandri (soprano)
Frasquita – Marie Gantéri (soprano)
Mercédès – Jeanne Billa-Azéma (soprano)
Don José – Agustarello Affre (tenor)
Escamillo – Henri Albers (baritone)
Le Dancaire – Hippolyte Belhomme (tenor)
Le Remendado – Paul Dumontier (tenor)
Zuniga – Pierre Dupré (bass-baritone)
Moralès – M Dulac (baritone)
Choir and Orchestra of the Opéra-Comique/François Ruhlmann
Recorded in Paris, 1911
Also includes three arias sung by Marguerite Mérentié made for G & T and Pathé from Ariane, Samson et Dalila and Marie-Magdeleine
MALIBRAN MR 560 [2 CDs: 77.40 + 79.33]

The ambition of Gramophone companies in the first decade and a half of the twentieth century was far more formidable than one might suppose from the scattered evidence that remains. French Pathé for example conceived the idea of recording a series of operas and plays in 1911, complete – not excerpts. This was a Herculean task given the technology and an exceptionally risky one given the potential financial return. Luckily for us, though not necessarily for Pathé’s shareholders, artistic vision triumphed over commercial prudence. The series was, predictably, a failure in monetary terms but posterity has recouped the advantage in the preservation of many distinguished but perhaps second-string French operatic personalities, whose avenues for recording were otherwise fairly limited.

That’s the background for this Malibran double of Carmen. Not only that but it’s one of the least well known and documented of the recordings of the work, and much less well remembered than the earlier 1908 G & T set headed by Czech legend Emmy Destinn (or Destinnová when at home in Prague after the First War). Here the cast centres on native French talent led by Marguerite Mérentié who had made her debut at twenty-five in 1905. She was equally at home with the French, the Italian (Verdi) and the Wagnerian (Isolde, Brünnhilde in Die Walküre) repertoires and made her debut in Carmen in 1909 partnered by the distinguished Edmond Clément. During the course of her career she created a number of roles in works by Massenet, Saint-Saëns and Gailhard and did make solo recordings for Pathé and for G & T, all before the First War. Her Don José is Agustarello Affre, the best known member of the cast and one for whom the description ‘second string’ certainly doesn’t apply. But Affre, born in 1858, was now fifty-one and his technique had taken a bit of a battering. He had a long career behind him – a debut at the capital’s Opera in 1890 opposite Melba (not a bad start) was followed by visits to Covent Garden, the San Francisco opera, New Orleans and less exotic locations closer to home. His place in the Parisian hierarchy was mirrored in his discography with companies competing to get him into their studios, so we are fortunate that a relatively large chunk of Affre is on disc.

They were joined by Henri Albers, a truly splendid Dutch-born baritone. Younger than Affre, he was born in 1866, and enjoyed a distinguished career taking him as far as the Met in New York, even though he was not retained there following his initial appearances. Like Affre he too went to San Francisco and New Orleans but he also starred in Vienna, Milan, Berlin, Leipzig and Monte Carlo so he was a well-established singer of high repute in 1911 though his career was certainly on the wane (he died in 1925).

For a 1911 Pathé (notorious for the variable quality of their records) the sound is really not too off-putting. The band is small and sounds to be heavily orientated towards brass and wind; string players sound few. The chorus is necessarily small, invariably so, given the circumstances of the acoustic recording. As a performance it rises to the level of creditable drama, no easy matter in 1911. Act I’s Mais nous ne voyons is a well-judged crowd scene and the balance between band and singers is excellently judged. This recording is notable for containing what I believe to be the only pre-1950 example of the complete dialogue though I doubt that all the singers spoke it. It sounds strongly to me as if actors replaced the leads, if not the others, hardly a unique situation even much later in recording history. Of the central roles Mérentié proves to have a real instinct for the dramatic. She has a strong, dark voice, rather too matronly perhaps but full of character and with good breath control (though she has problems in Act II’s Je vais danser). Affre doesn’t have an especially beautiful voice and he is inclined to bellow a bit – it’s no laser-focused tenor. He’s taxed high in the tessitura and the sense of strain is palpable – but against that he’s an unambiguously proud Don José, responsive and a real stage animal. Albers still retained that attractive timbre though his vibrato was now rather oscillatory and it had begun to compromise his legato. Conductor François Ruhlmann, an old studio hand, keeps things moving forward, though the brass band effect can sometimes hinder rapidity of articulation in the orchestral passages. Three arias made by Mérentié for Pathé and G & T complete the set. There’s a deal of swish on the G & T but in compensation the voice is happily forwardly recorded.

Pitching sounds to be well judged and the copies used are quiet. No transfer engineer or process is noted and there are no notes. This 1911 recording has appeared on Marston in recent years, a set I’ve not heard, so one would need to compare transfers and to weigh up the advantage of their booklet notes, which in my experience are usually exemplary.

Jonathan Woolf

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