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Review of Les Misérables: 1991 Paris Revival Cast Recording

The verdict: fantastic!  This is the Les Mis recording I waited twenty years to hear, and it did not disappoint.  There is some urban legend that this version is no longer (legally) available, but that’s bull: it’s available at a very reasonable price on iTunes.  In a nutshell, the cast is superb and the songs mostly excellent; I only wish the recording were more comprehensive. (Spoilers follow.)

Les Misérables 1991 Paris Cast

The Editing:

The selection of songs is similar to the London recording’s.  The focus is on set numbers with relatively few connecting parts.  As in the London recording, this serves 1815 and 1823 better than 1832.  Since most of the barricade drama does not break down into individual songs, some of the barricade story is missing.  The exceptions are the set songs: (“Un peu de sang qui pleure”/“A Little Fall of Rain,” “Souviens-toi des jours passés,”/“Drink with Me,” and “Comme un homme,”/“Bring Him Home”), which all take place in between moments of military action and, thus, bypass the fall of the barricade arc.  If you’re listening to the recording to get the full arc of the story, this is the biggest impediment.  Another shame is the omission of much of Gavroche’s part.  Lesser gaps, but still unfortunate are Valjean’s difficulties as a paroled convict, Fantine’s arrest, and the Valjean-Javert interchanges surrounding “Comment faire?”/“Who Am I?” (Not missed–by me–is some of the Thénardiers scheming at the wedding.)

The good news is that many of these omissions are parts the original French cast recording of 1980 included: Fantine’s arrest, more of the barricade, much more Gavroche.  So with the two together, there’s comparatively good French coverage of the full play in a recorded format (though ironically not as good as we have in English).

The Cast:

The cast is top notch.  I have few-to-no complaints.  They’re lovely to listen to.  Here’s a breakdown of the major characters:

Valjean–Robert Marien: Much in the tradition of Colm Wilkinson.   Extremely solid.  If I have one tiny niggle–and it is the only niggle I have–it’s that when he’s telling Javert he is the stronger man, he actually sounds a tad wimpy: high without enough power behind the notes.  Seriously, everything else is about perfect.

Javert–Patrick Rocca: He has a beautiful voice, which feels to me a little lighter than some Javerts.  It is a joy to hear a French Javert in the tradition of beautiful Javerts.  The original French Javert, directed to growl, was a misstep in the concept for the character, thankfully corrected here.

Fantine–Louise Pitre: She may be my second-favorite Fantine, and if she is not my favorite, it is only because her power notes could be a trifle more powerful.  That said, she does exactly what Fantine needs to: run the range from very soft to belting to the back row.  She is a more “standard” Fantine than the original French’s Rose Laurens, whose vocal strength gave enormous oomph to the character but lost something in vulnerability.  Pitre covers the range ably.

Little Cosette–listed as three singers: a pretty typical little Cosette.

The Thénardiers–Laurent Gendron, Marie-France Roussel (reprising her role from the original recording).  I have only heard one performance (live or recorded) of the Thénardiers that didn’t annoy me, and that’s the original French, from the days before it was ordained they must sound ugly.  These are the second-least annoying Thénardiers I’ve heard.  They are directed to sing rough but not to sing horrifically, and you can hear the good singers underneath the emoting.  They also score over every English Thénardier in not being Cockneys.  The removal of this bit of classism makes them much less jarring.  (I should note that my French is nowhere near good enough to judge how they’re being coded in the French libretto.)

Gavroche–also listed as three people.  He’s a competent, standard, younger Gavroche.  He’s got a hard act to follow after the original French Gavroche (Fabrice Bernard), who is older and vocally a real tiger.  This younger lad is also hampered by the fact that almost all of his lines are omitted.  Poor kid.

Marius–Jerome Pradon: excellent and in the tradition of the original French casting, i.e. very boyish–but he packs a big punch in “Seul devant ces tables vides”/“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”  This is just right.  Marius should be adolescent.  But the barricade grows him up, and he comes out with real adult power just when he needs to.  I prefer this casting conceptually to the more, er, mannish Michael Ball, though it is difficult to find fault with the sheer beauty of Ball’s voice.

Eponine–Stephanie Martin: like her little brother, Eponine suffers from the omission of quite a bit of her part, though her big numbers are there.  She’s a skilled, typical Eponine with a nice balance between sounding a bit rough and being a very fine singer.

Cosette–Marie Zamora: she’s quite nice.  She manages to hit all the high notes without squawking and is really quite pleasant to listen to.

Enjolras–Julien Combey: the biggest surprise in the show!  He sounds positively boyish (though, of course, not as much as Marius).  I have never encountered this conceptualization before; Enjolras always seems to be deployed with flat-out, strong, masculine singing.  But this different approach makes a lot of sense.  In the book, his youthfulness is emphasized.  As far as the musical goes, it was a smart move not to compete with Michel Sardou’s performance in the original French because his gorgeous voice cannot be improved upon.  Combey goes a different direction: he packs a lot of power but with an almost over-the-top enthusiasm that occasionally sounds as if it might tip over into a squeak.  The effect is very humanizing, and I approve entirely.

Grantaire–Renaud Marx: a tiny disappointment.  Marx was directed in the tradition of the Symphonic Grantaire to sound gruff and ugly, and this makes him sound gruff and ugly.  It is not nearly as painful as in the Symphonic recording; in fact, it’s almost overlookable, just a tiny blip in my enjoyment, mostly in “Rouge la flamme de la colére”/“Red and Black.”

The Songs:

As far as I’m aware, there are only two commercially distributed French versions of Les Mis (at least legally available in the US): the 1980 recording and this one.  The 1980 recording is very good.  It has the basics of the play we know and love.  The singers, by and large, are excellent, the arrangements pretty strong.  But compared the revisions of the 1980s, it’s clearly unpolished, missing several of the songs we love, trailing others off where there ought to be a rousing crescendo and so on.  For many years, I’ve longed to hear the polished product in its original language, and this is it.  Even if it weren’t the excellent recording it is, that bare fact would justify its existence.

This version gives us the French renditions of “I Dreamed a Dream” and “One Day More” in their more powerful later arrangements.  Heck, it’s a kick to hear the 1815 prologue in French at all!  That blanket praise having been established, here are some particular notes:

* The libretto has been rewritten a lot!  It has few lines in common with the original French but often translates directly into the English.  My French is very poor, so I can’t make detailed remarks about language, but I have scattered thoughts.

* I think the libretto here, like the English, is a bit closer to the book than the original French was, and that’s an improvement.

* It is, however, a shame to mostly lose the “title song,” Fantine’s “La misére.”  As in the English, it’s now mainly her death narrative rather than social commentary, but they did squeeze in a few of the original lines, so all is not lost.

* And now a story: once upon a time, there was a song called “Demain” (Tomorrow), which expressed the basic theme of the play: (i.e., “the sun’ll come out tomorrow,” or if you prefer, “We are entering a grave illuminated by the dawn.”).  And in this song, there was a lovely little passage that consisted of the ensemble singing “demain” several times in increasingly high notes.  This posed a problem for the English translation because the English for “demain” is “tomorrow,” and it’s difficult to squeeze three syllables into two beats.  The solution was to translate this theme obliquely in a different part of the song.  For example, one could replace its original, rather dull opening of “Comment faire?” (“What to do?”) with “One day more.”  This worked quite well for the English, despite the fact that they had to sacrifice the lovely little chorus of “demain’s” and replace it with some filler like, “The time is now. / The day is here.”  I’m guessing that at some point it was decided that the French song would benefit from an overhaul to bring it line with the more rousing later version, and this was duly done, resulting in more musical excitement.  The lyrics were overhauled as well: “Comment faire…” became “Un grand jour” (a great day), and this became the tag line.  A lot of “demain’s” still fly about, but lost in the shuffle was the titular chorus.  “Demain” emerges sans its signature “demain.”  And that’s ironic.

But my snark aside, it’s a fine “One Day More” and (almost, minus “demain”) fulfills one of my great wishes: to hear that orchestration in French.

* “À la volonté du peuple”/“Do You Hear the People Sing” gets a lot of its lyrics rewritten but emerges as much the same song.  It was the best, for my money, in the original French, marred only by disappointing ending that just trails off.  This newer version, though it feels the absence of Michel Sardou, is quite strong and does the job… and then trails off again.  People, you had over ten years to revise that ending!

* On the other hand, present in the original French was Gavroche, and I do find it an interesting choice to omit almost all of his “C’est la faute à Voltaire.”  (There are 1-2 lines left.)  I can’t really call it a loss because the original French does the song well.  It didn’t need re-doing; it just seems an interesting choice to omit the only song with lyrics by Victor Hugo.

* And speaking of the vanishing Gavroche, one of the best songs in the original French is “Donnez”/“Look Down.”  It’s also one of the longer songs, giving Gavroche three verses in which to follow him around Paris.  The newer version, “Bonjour Paris” is one of the shorter versions I’ve heard.  Gavroche gets one verse.  The interplay between Marius and Eponine is gone (in fact, we don’t hear Eponine until much later when she’s already singing about how she’s lost Marius to Cosette).  What’s there is very good.  I was very pleased to see the song follow the Symphonic-era insertion of a “ça viendra” chorus under the Lamarque bits; it adds a great sense of simmering discontent.  But the song just seems to end abruptly, and this does some damage to…

* “Sous les étoiles”/“Stars,” which directly follows it.  It’s not the fault of either song, but the edit’s awkward.  One feels in the upswing revolutionary fervor in “Bonjour Paris”; then, suddenly it’s over and Javert pops in singing very contemplatively, and I almost literally have difficulty hearing him.  I keep asking myself, “Who is this guy singing this slow sort of quiet song here?”  (Yes, this is a partly a second language thing.)  Eventually, the song picks up, of course, but it’s a lovely song and very important, and it shouldn’t have to wait for “eventually.”

* On the other hand, the placement of “Stars” here allows a straight transition from Valjean rescuing Cosette to Paris, 1832, and that transition, though short, is very effective, loud and angry, as it should be.

* I have nothing but praise for the finale.  It nails it.  Exactly what was missing in the original French.

I’ve done a great deal of nitpicking about a recording that is exceptionally strong.  I recommend it to any Les Mis fan with any interest at all in French versions.  Again, it’s available at a very fair price on iTunes.  Not to be missed.

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3 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading your review and I have really only one minor quibble which I feel compelling to bring up: the original French Javert was too growly??? How is that even possible with Javert? I don’t even get why the musicals always soften the character and I was always really happy about Jacques Mercier carrying off the appropriate harshness for the character.

    Anyhow, mini-rant over and I loved your review in all other respects, especially your going over the songs themselves.

    • Arwen Spicer

      Thanks for the comment! Everyone has their own taste in Javerts. 🙂 Luckily, there are many lovely Javerts to choose from.

  2. Thank you for reviewing the Paris Revival Cast. I agree that it’s nice to hear some of the concept album’s tunes revised.

    Definitely agree with the Thénardiers; the concept album has some of my favourite there. This is also one of my favourite Javerts – his timbre sounds perfect.

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