Massenet: Werther
Georges Thill, tenor, (Werther), Ninon Vallin, soprano, (Charlotte), Germaine FÈraldy, soprano, (Sophie), Marcel Rocque, baritone, (Albert), Armand NarÁon, bass (Le bailli), Children's Chorus of the Cantoria, Chorus and Orchestra of the Paris Opera/Elie Cohen cond.  Georges Thill: arias from Le Cid, HÈrodiade, Manon, and Sapho.Naxos Historical 8.110061-62 (2 CDs) (B) (ADD) TT: 2:25:59

Recorded in Paris in 1931, this Werther captures tenor Georges Thill and soprano Ninon Vallin—two of the greatest French singers of the 20th century—in top form. The French supporting cast, chorus, orchestra, and conductor all perform with a sense of identification that subsequent recordings (many of them quite fine, indeed) do not approach.

Georges Thill's Werther is a performance for the ages. Has any tenor ever performed French opera with such an ideal fusion of crystal-clear diction, vocal beauty, and dramatic involvement?  All of those attributes are very much in evidence in this recording. The only vocal flaw is a slight bobble in the second climactic A-sharp of "Pourquoi me rÈveillier?" Thill could certainly have redone the aria. But I can certainly understand his reluctance, given the overall magnificence of the rendition.

It is important to keep in mind that the first Werther, Ernst van Dyck, had a distinguished career as a Wagnerian tenor. Werther is indeed a role that requires a considerable amount of vocal power. Thill, who frequently sang Lohengrin and Tannh”user, is more than equal to that aspect of the role as well. Those who are used to a more veristic approach to Werther might be somewhat disappointed by Thill's comparatively restrained approach. I find it to be one of his strengths, lending Werther a dignity that makes his sacrifice and death all the more tragic. All in all, this Werther certainly ranks as one of Thill's greatest achievements in his rather extensive discography.

Similar attributes may be found in soprano Ninon Vallin's sympathetic portrayal of Charlotte. Although Charlotte is normally sung by mezzo-sopranos, Vallin has absolutely no difficulty with the tessitura. Like Thill, Vallin is a master of the art of wedding impeccable French diction to a beautiful, flowing vocal line. Also like Thill, Vallin eschews sobs and other extra-musical effects to make her dramatic points. Instead she relies on subtle vocal coloration and articulation. Listen, for example, to the way that Vallin chillingly portrays Charlotte's desperation at the start of the opera's final scene.

Thill and Vallin expertly portray two noble characters drawn, against their will, into a tragic love affair. The passion that exists between this Werther and Charlottte is never in doubt, particularly in the "Claire de lune" and the opera's concluding scene. Interesting then, that several sources have reported that Vallin did not at all care for Thill and in fact, walked out of the studio during the recording sessions of their 1935 Louise!

The remainder of the Werther cast is excellent, as are the contributions of the chorus and orchestra under the direction of Elie Cohen. Throughout, Cohen proves to be a most sympathetic accompanist, allowing the artists to make their dramatic and musical points.

This Werther was previously issued on compact disc by EMI in 1989. The EMI release is certainly more than acceptable. However, Ward Marston's new remastering is a quantum leap forward. There is far less filtering, and therefore, a corresponding increase in surface noise. But the voices now emerge with extraordinary clarity, warmth, and presence.  As in the case of Mr. Marston's restoration of the 1946 Samson et Dalila, I heartily recommend that those who already own the EMI issue of this Werther purchase the Naxos set. The minimal financial outlay will be amply repaid by the sonic improvement. The inclusion of six arias from other Massenet operas, gorgeously sung by Thill, serves as further incentive.

The accompanying booklet includes essays on the opera and the recording, as well as a plot synopsis. The CDs on my review copy mistakenly list Giuseppe Antonicelli as the conductor (a carry-over, I suspect from a recent Naxos issue of a Met broadcast La traviata). Obviously, this minor flaw is of little or no consequence in the face of Ward Marston's superb efforts on behalf of a legendary recording—the greatest of Werthers as it has never sounded before.

K.M. (Jan. 2001)