(Les) Introuvables du Chant Français
Collectors and historians can argue over how much the selections here are really ‘introuvable’. As André Tubeuf writes in his booklet-note, ‘Everything has been reissued’. You probably could find nearly all of the 186 tracks here somewhere else. It might take years, though, and the expense would be enormous, so let’s just start by being grateful that French EMI is continuing with historic reissues.
The first of the eight CDs compiles ‘Le ton classique’ from Lully to Magnard. Then there is ‘Meyerbeer et le grand opéra’, taking in Halévy, Thomas and Saint Saëns. Two discs are devoted to the Opéra-Comique repertory, from Paer’s Le Maitre de chapelle (1821) to Hahn’s Le Marchand de Venise (1935). Gounod and Massenet get a CD each, then there is a disc called ‘en traduction’ with French translations of arias by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and Mozart. Finally in ‘Le muse légère’, opérette, musical comedy and popular song get a rather cursory look-in.
From the earliest recordings, Félia Litvinne (with Cortot at the piano!) in 1902, Ernest Van Dyck (the creator of Werther) in 1903, Pol Plancon in 1904, right through to items from the early 1950s, Renée Doria in an aria from La Reine de Saba, certain constants are apparent. All these singers seem to speak the words as well as singing them, with clear and natural diction, and they are not afraid to make a harsh or nasal sound when the word demands it. Much as I regret the absence of texts, it’s remarkable how clearly one can hear nearly all the words. The vibrato, too, is different from today’s; faster, tighter, more controlled. In all probability many of these were not large voices, and their proximity to the recording horn or later microphone may exaggerate the power of their tones.
There are old favourites which leap out, still surprising in their power and personality. Leonce Escalaïs in the Act 1 aria from Robert le Diable: this surely is how Meyerbeer intended his music to be sung. Then Lucien Fugère, recorded when he was 80, showing astonishing security and a resonant voice in arias by Gluck, Chabrier and Messager. Louis Cazette, seductive and then stentorian in ‘Je suis l’oiseau’ from Massenet’s Griselidis. Then Suzanne Cesbron-Viseur, creating a whole character in three minutes in the emotion-packed aria from Massenet’s Sapho. Jean-Emile Vanni Marcoux, to whom the set is dedicated, displays his great versatility, from an introspective ‘Etre ou ne pas être’ from Thomas’s Hamlet, to two Massenet characters, the sensual aria of Mark Antony from Cleopatre, ‘Seule sur ma terrasse’, and the gorgeous melody from Panurge, ‘Touraine est un pays’, which makes one long to hear the rest of this late work.
In more recherché repertory, it’s interesting to hear from such works as Cherubini’s Les Abencer-eages (with Thill), Adam’s Le Farfadet (a vivid André Baugé) and Fernand Ansseau in Février’s Monna Vanna. Among sopranos and mezzos, Solange Renaux in Persée, from 1935, must have been an early attempt at a Lully revival, while Georgette Frozier reveals her distinctive voice in arias from Les Troyens and Samson et Dalîla. Both Rose Caron and Germaine Martinelli impress in arias by Reyer, from Sigurd and Salammbo.
Among the lighter fare, Hélène Regelly sings an aria from Hervé’s La Femme à Papa (misattributed in the booklet to Offenbach), Emma Luart is radiant as Fiorella in Offenbach’s Les Brigands, and although there is nothing from Yvonne Printemps, Suzanne-Marie Bertin does a passable imitation of her in one of Hahn’s songs for the 1934 film of La Dame aux camellias.
Anyone interested in the history of French opera and singing will find plenty to occupy them. The sound quality varies considerably, but that’s hardly surprising with the earliest items being over 100 years old. Patrick O’Connor
It was all Pelléas and Mélisande’s fault. Until Debussy’s masterpiece came along in 1902, opéra-comique, and with it the specifically French voices for which it was written, had been going along quite nicely in its vein of gentle realism. It had even weathered Carmen without much damage. But the psychological probings of Pelléas, together with the brutal realism of two world wars, have meant that we now look back on the essential innocence of opéra-comique as at a book of fairytales. The fact that most of the recordings in this set date from between the wars does nothing to contradict this: France’s operatic tradition was living on borrowed time.
There is so much here that impresses. For a start, the tenderness and grace of the lyrical moments, from Clément and Journet in 1912 in the Pearlfishers duet, to Cazette in 1922 in an aria from Grisélidis, to Roger Bourdin in 1930 in one of the king’s arias from Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui. The supreme quality of this art is ‘not strained’. Every soprano, it seems, can float up to top As, the voice lightning as it rises. Then there is the tension between singing and singing-plus-acting which informs many of the more dramatic items. Pernet’s Boris monologue, Supervia’s Carmen, Musy’s Fritelli and Marcoux’s heartrending death of Don Quichotte bring the characters before us with a clarity that is startling and utterly involving. In these and in many other cases in the set, beauty is sacrificed to truth, accuracy to the portrayal of personality.
The accuracy/inaccuracy debate in an operatic context (only 13 of the 186 tracks are not from stage works) is no doubt with us for ever. Listening to Blanche Deschamps-Jehin’s 1908 version of ‘Ah! Mon fils’ from Le prophète, we may sympathize with Fauré, who, on becoming director of the Paris Conservatoire three years earlier, had insisted that singers stick to the text. On the other hand, the technical accuracy of some of the coloratura is staggering, beginning with Emma Eames’s 1906 waltz from Roméo et Juliette. Inaccuracy in general on these discs is driven by the desire to communicate character, meaning and emotion; and, as always in France, the word rules. Time and again, these singers seem to speak to each of us individually. Making a choice from such a wealth of material is invidious, but I would single out Suzanne Balguerie’s aria from Ariane et Barbe-bleue and, of course, Germaine Cernay’s 1928 Geneviève monologue from Pelléas which, as well as demonstrating as nearly perfect French diction as one can get, expresses through tone and articulation alone the profound, mysterious sadness that weighs on Allemonde.
Inevitably, I should like one or two things to have been otherwise. Some of the documentation is in error (Gwendoline is an ‘opéra’ and was never given at the Opéra-Comique) and the ordering of tracks at times appears arbitrary. It’s a pity, too, that we’re given no dates for the singers, so we have to look elsewhere to find out at what point in a career any recording was made. In general the transfers are good, if with a slight bias towards brightness and even thinness of tone. Several of the sopranos here could do with help in the opposite direction, and even the lovely Germaine Martinelli is not shown to best advantage in ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’. All the tracks come from Guy Dumazert’s collection, so there will be gaps one might have liked filled: a single track of José Luccioni is not enough for me, and seven of César Vezzani quite a lot too many.
But carping is really out of order in the face of such a treasure trove, including superb contributions from Franz, Fugère, Plançon, Vallin, Ritter-Ciampi, van Dyck, Lubin, d’Arkor, Rogatchewsky and many others. An enormous merci to all concerned. Roger Nichols