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The French performing arts critic Gérard Mannoni, born in 1939, offers a curate’s egg of reminiscences about operas he has seen and singers interviewed.

An anglophile, after studying English at the Sorbonne and completing a thesis on ‘The beginnings of Opera in England in the 18th century as seen in The Spectator’, Mannoni abandoned plans to do further research on Handel, and fell into journalism. Early memories include a 1954 staging of Weber’s Oberon starring the Brazilian soprano Constantina Araújo Mannoni recalls Araújo as ‘corpulent’, although photos in costume from the time show scarcely any undue excess weight.

Fawning in the Gallic style during interviews, Mannoni’s adulation may have produced some unexpected confidences. The Italian bass-baritone Ruggero Raimondi admitted that he went awry on his lines during a performance of Boris Godunov at the Opéra de Paris. So he carried on singing with great conviction in a Russian accent: ‘Pepsi-Cola Coca-Cola’ until he recalled the libretto again. Other statements from stars are hardly revelatory: Luciano Pavarotti admits, ‘I eat too much. So I am too fat’.

Continuing in the theme of food obsessions, the Italian mezzo-soprano Fedora Barbieri once served as tour guide in Florence for Mannoni’s then-editor, who hoped to see cultural treasures. Instead, Barbieri took him to a range of gelato shops to taste cloying treats, followed by an endless dinner. Mannoni drily adds that the next time his editor toured Florence, he did so ‘without visiting Fedora’.

Perhaps surprisingly, the French Wagnerian soprano and Nazi collaborator Germaine Lubin, interviewed in 1969, proved a fan of Pierre Boulez’s conducting of Parsifal at Bayreuth: ‘[Boulez] has a feeling for this music and knows better than anyone how to bring out the splendour of Wagner’s orchestral writing.

Possibly the most charming observations in Mannoni’s book are fond, if unsensational, jottings about the Polish-born soprano Marya Freund and vocal accompanist Irène Aïtoff, both sadly neglected outside France.

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Opera Now, 2019 - ©Rhinegold Publishing