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Your Recorded Heritage: Bizet
Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
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Voices6/1/2004

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Georges Bizet’s Carmen has a distinguished recording history in both complete performances and excerpts. From this ever-popular work, as well as the composer’s Les Pêcheurs de perles, there are considerable lessons to be learned from the early decades of recording in terms of balancing elegant vocalism with dramatic urgency. Many singers have gotten by in Bizet with beauty at the expense of text, but a Solange Michel or a Charles Dalmorès demonstrates indisputably that Bizet does not come alive unless the text is commanded in depth.

Sopranos

At the turn of the century, Carmen’s title role was sung nearly as frequently by sopranos as by mezzos. The most famous Carmen of the 1890s was a soprano, Emma Calvé (1858-1942), whose stage repertoire ranged from Cavalleria’s Santuzza to Hamlet’s Ophélie! Listening to her Carmen today, we’re aware of extraordinary liberties of phrasing. At the same time, Calvé projects a personality of overwhelming charm and appeal – not for nothing was her name synonymous with Bizet’s gypsy for an entire generation of operagoers.

Carmen was first recorded complete in 1908, in German. The first complete French-language recording was made four years later with a dramatic soprano, Marguerite Merentié, (1880 - ? ). A Tosca and a Brunnhilde, she was also completely at ease with Carmen’s music. One finds a significantly more restrained presentation than with Calvé, yet the characterization comes to life. The dialogue is included in her recording, and she makes the most of it.

Of the many available versions of Leïla’s aria from Pêcheurs recorded pre-1950, the few now available are by French sopranos. An exception is the performance of the uniquely versatile Ninon Vallin (1886-1961), who also recorded the arias of both Carmen and Micaela (her stage repertoire included both roles). One learns something from every Vallin recording; she is elegant musicality personified, and instinctively she gives all her recorded performances an ideal sense of proportion. Purely vocally, she almost invariably provides immense enjoyment, possessing a richer, more colorful lower-middle register than any other French lyric soprano of her generation.

Mezzo-sopranos

Conchita Supervia
(1895-1936) was made for Carmen. This Spaniard had a great flair for French texts, and a unique way of “tasting” Carmen’s words so that each inflection remains forever in one’s memory. Like Calvé, the voice exudes vivacity (not surprisingly, she was one of her era’s few outstanding Rossini singers), but the darkness necessary for Carmen is there, too. Supervia’s distinctive vibrato has always been an acquired taste, but one capitulates immediately to her total, phrase-byphrase involvement in the gypsy’s character.

After Supervia, Germaine Cernay (1900-1943) and Solange Michel (1912 - ?), both of whom recorded Carmen complete, come as a shock. They may strike listeners as cool to a fault, but beneath the coolness there is also danger. They are not prone to the exaggeration of which one could possibly accuse their predecessor, Calvé, and they do not force the voice at extremes of range, as one hears so often with today’s Carmens. Their subtle way with the text is a joy in itself, and they each have the right Carmen timbre, neither too “fruity” nor too light-toned. Michel, by the way, was theCarmen in France during the 1940s and ’50s, singing the role well in nearly 700 performances.

Tenors

Few top flight French — or rather, “francophone” — tenors today can even adequately handle Don José’s music, but there were many 75-100 years ago. A major figure internationally, Charles Dalmorès (1871-1939), sang a wide variety of spinto repertoire and was a favorite in both France and America. His timbre did not ravish the ear as did those of his greatest Italian contemporaries, but he had enormous musicality, intelligence, a sense of line to do justice to the Flower Song, and true dramatic intelligence. In later generations came the exciting Corsican José Luccioni (1903-1978); Michel’s José on records, the French- Canadian Raoul Jobin (1906-1974), a lighter voice than Luccioni – he took on all the major “heavy lyric” French parts; and nearly everyone’s French spinto tenor of choice, the manly, straightforward Georges Thill (1897-1984), whose “La fleur” is not currently available on CD, alas.

When it comes to floating Nadir’s aria and any other lightish French tenor aria you can mention, they come no better than Edmond Clément (1867-1928); his mastery of floated half-voice is breathtaking. In the great line of tenors in this repertoire, his heirs are Spain’s Miguel Villabella (1892-1954), a tenor of seemingly unlimited top voice, with near-native timbre and diction; and one of Canada’s greatest gifts to singing, silver-voiced Léopold Simoneau (1918 - ), who was just as renowned in Mozart as in French roles.

Baritones and Basses

The Toreador Song is not a piece we hear today with the degree of elegance that would have been expected of any French baritone singing this music a century ago. A genuine vocal aristocrat was Henri Albers (1866-1925), a Flemish artist who established himself in France. Albers, who sang Escamillo in the complete recording with Merentié, had an extraordinarily assured technique, and did not emphasize the toreador’s machismo at the expense of the vocal line.

Other baritones who could do justice to the music of both Escamillo and Zurga were two contemporaries, Charles Cambon (1892-1965) and Jean Borthayre (1902-1984). The latter had greater intensity of utterance, the former a warmer and even more voluminous instrument. In the next generation, the voice of Gerard Souzay (1920 - ) was much lighter than those two, but his is nevertheless a passionately convincing interpretation of Zurga’s aria. Thanks to a very large range, the sumptuous-voiced bass Marcel Journet (1867-1933) was able to take on the duet with Nadir in a memorable performance opposite Clément.

By far the best-known number from Bizet’s La Jolie Fille de Perth is Ralph’s drinking song, “Quand la flamme de l’amour,” which many French singers have recorded brilliantly. One of the first was bass-baritone Jean- François Delmas (1861-1933), an imposing figure with vocal amplitude to match. The creator of Athanaël in Massenet’s Thaïs and the first to sing four major Wagner parts at the Paris Opéra, Delmas possessed a degree of vocal grandeur that we don’t hear today in French repertoire. It emerges vividly even in primitive, turn-of-the- century recorded sound.

Calvé: “The Complete Known Recordings,” Pearl #9482
Merentié, Albers: Carmen, Marston #52019
Vallin: “Opera and Mélodie,” Pearl #9948
Michel, Jobin: Carmen, Aura Classics #1117
Supervia: “In Opera and Song,” Nimbus #7836
Clément: “The Legendary French Tenor,” Minerva #51 (incl. Pêcheurs duet with Journet)
Dalmorès: Recital, #89506
Villabella: “Prince of French Lyric Tenors,” VAI #1132
Cambon: operatic recital, Malibran #CDRG 122
Souzay: “Airs d’Opéras,” Philips
Delmas, “Treasures of the French
Voices: The Bass,” Minerva #45
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About the Author: Editorial Dramaturg, Lyric Opera Chicago
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