Massenet: Werther
Alain Vanzo, tenor, (Werther), Francine Arrauzau, mezzo-soprano, (Charlotte), Daniele Chlostawa, soprano, (Sophie), Yves Bisson, baritone, (Albert), Jean-Louis Soumagnas, bass (Le bailli), Maitrise de Radio France, Orchestre de ThÈâtre National de l'OpÈra-Comique, Pierre Dervaux, cond.  Plus excerpts with Franco Corelli (tenor) and Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano)
GALA GL 100.585 (2 CDs) (B) (ADD) TT: 2:28:08

This Gala release is a most welcome addition to the Werther discography. First and foremost, it constitutes (as best I can tell) the only complete recording featuring the Werther of my favorite post-war French tenor, Alain Vanzo. That would be enough reason to acquire this set but there is much more to recommend it as well.

This Paris Werther took place in March of 1978, the month prior to Alain Vanzo's 50th birthday. A comparison between the Vanzo of this performance to recordings the tenor made in his absolute prime—the 1959 Pearl Fishers, for example—indicates a hint of vocal decline. The voice is a shade drier in timbre, the vibrato is a bit less focused.  However, the Alain Vanzo of 1978 still possesses a first-rate tenor voice, and one that he employs with consummate skill. The diction and legato are impeccable. Other Vanzo trademark qualities—a mastery of phrasing and dynamic shading—are in evidence throughout. His articulation and superb rhythmic sense constantly give the music shape and forward momentum. With too many Werthers, the second-act monologue, "J'aurais sur ma poitrine," degenerates into a mad scramble. Vanzo's admirable combination of passion and discipline (matched by the accompaniment of conductor Pierre Dervaux) makes it an unforgettable moment.  Throughout this performance Vanzo delivers an interpretation that brilliantly portrays Werther's passion and desperation, without once ever straying from the nobility and elegance that is so crucial to the French style. This is certainly one of the best assumptions of Werther that I have ever heard. While it may not eclipse Georges Thill's benchmark 1931 EMI recording, it is in that exalted class.

Fortunately Vanzo is joined by colleagues who are worthy of his superb performance. Mezzo Francine Arrauzau—a name unknown to me prior to this recording—sings with great passion and vocal beauty. Her quick vibrato may not be to everyone's taste, and one or two high notes lack color, but it is still a fine assumption of the role of Charlotte.. Daniele Chlostawa is a vocally assured Sophie who manages to avoid the easy temptation in this role of being overly precious and saccharine. Yves Bisson, a veteran of some EMI recordings, sings handsomely as Albert, and convincingly portrays the character's changing attitude toward Werther.

The other great stars of this performance are conductor Pierre Dervaux and the Orchestra of the Paris OpÈra. This is certainly one of the most passionate renditions of the orchestral score that I have ever heard. The interlude preceding the opera's final act, for example, is absolutely hair-raising. Throughout, Dervaux and the Orchestra demonstrate an intimate familiarity with the music without a moment a moment of routine or ennui. A shame, then, that opening portion of the Act I Prelude is missing.

The mono broadcast sound is a tad boxy, but more than sufficient to enjoy this excellent performance. An appendix to the complete Paris Werther offers two excerpts (the "Clair de lune" duet and Letter Aria) from a 27 February 1971 Metropolitan Opera performance of the same opera. This marked the role debut of the great Italian tenor Franco Corelli, joined by Christa Ludwig as Charlotte. The recording, taped from the audience, is primitive, but clear enough to discern that both singers are in fabulous voice. On the other hand, Vanzo's stylistic and interpretive superiority to Corelli in this repertoire is evident at each and every turn.

K.M.(Dec. 2001)