EMI Classics' Les Introvables du Chant Français is an incredible undertaking, consisting of eight well-filled discs totaling 185 tracks, a survey of "golden age" French singing. This collection ranges in artists from baritone Lucien Fugère, who was born the year before Chopin died and made his operatic debut before the advent of recording, to Camille Maurane, who retired from teaching only in 1981 (and at age 95 was still alive in March 2007). Chronologically, the selection begins with a G&T of soprano Félia Litvinne made in 1902 and ends with early LP-era recordings of soprano Renée Doria made in 1953, but most of the recordings are concentrated in the 1920s and 1930s. This was the last great renaissance of French singing before the Second World War changed the whole nature of cultural life in France. By "singing," of course, operatic singing is intended, though the last disc dips its toe into French popular chanson through the inclusion of tracks by Fréhel and Yvette Guilbert. In terms of "trained" singers, Les Introvables du Chant Français is uncommonly generous; among just better-known names, it features Edmond Clément, Marcel Journet, Emma Calvé, Emile Scarambeg, Fanny Heldy, Yvonne Brothier, Paul Franz, Marie Delna, Maria Kouznetzoff, Yvonne Gall, Ninon Vallin, Vanni-Marcoux, Charles Panzèra, and Gérard Souzay along with many, many unfamiliar performers.
This 630-minute survey not only covers the singers, but the key repertoire as well. Sizeable sections of this program are devoted to Gounod, Massenet, Meyerbeer, Reyer, and Offenbach, not to mention such unimaginable obscurities as an aria from Albéric Magnard's Guercouer dating from 1933. It is the repertoire that largely drives the program, which begins with Lully and runs through to Messager, followed by a disc devoted to French versions of foreign opera and a final disc, "Le muse légère," devoted to opéra comique.
The slight booklet note, while well intentioned, isn't tremendously helpful and assumes that the listener already knows a lot about French opera going into this package; perhaps that's just as well, as the potential audience for this mammoth set outside of France is going to be limited indeed. Disc 6, consisting of 26 tracks surveying the French operatic landscape in the wake of Bizet's Carmen and including works by 14 composers ranging from Offenbach to Ravel, is a lot to take in on its own. Some of it will be deep even for expert tastes -- tenor Jean de Reszké, who destroyed his only studio recordings, isn't represented, but his non-professional wife, Marie de Reszké, is in a test record made in 1905 -- and she's not half bad! The sound, as one might expect for a package of such great comprehension, is variable in the extreme, though none of the tracks betray more than a faint amount of hiss at their worst and sound reasonably lifelike at best, though some transient audio artifacts resulting from digital audio restoration is audible here and there.
Les Introvables du Chant Français is a steal at twice the asking price, and yet the question remains - when will a listener have the time to survey all of the wondrous riches represented here? Though not as "legendary" in this period as German, and some American, singers, the players on the French opera stage of the years 1890-1940 are represented on record a bit more comprehensively than their German and American counterparts, and Les Introvables du Chant Français takes broad sample of that entire spectrum of recorded performances.