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Friday, February 27, 2015

  Jeanne Gerville-Réache

 Jeanne Gerville-Réache  (1882 -1915) était une grande contralto d’opéra connue et admirée pour sa très belle voix,   soutenue par une technique de chant qui lui a permis de chanter dans deux registres vocaux-- mezzo soprano et contralto.

        Née à Orthez,  elle  passa son enfance en Martinique, où son père était le gouverneur.  Parce qu'il est evident qu'elle était douée depuis sa jeunesse, elle fut emmenée à Paris étudier sous Rosine Laborde, qui aura permis que la jeune cantatrice vienne rencontrer Emma Calvé.

Calvé à son tour a permis que la jeune et douée Gerville-Réache vienne faire ses débuts professionels en Orphée et Eurydice de Glück, a  l’Opéra Comique, en 1899.

     Premièrement, il est important d'entendre la voix extraordinaire, et un bon début serait un air indicatif de Samson et Dalila. Voici "Printemps qui commence", enregistré en 1909,  aux débuts de sa carrière:

Quelle belle voix de contralto! Il apparaît immédiatement que c’était un grand talent. Malheureusement, ces voix n’existent plus.

     Après un début rapide et réussi, la carrière de Gerville-Réache a progressé avec empressement. Elle a reçu une position permanente à l'Opéra-Comique en 1900.  Pendant ce temps, elle a chanté dans deux premières :  Catherine dans Le Juif polonais de Camille Erlanger, et le rôle de Geneviève dans Pelléas et Mélisande  (Debussy  1902.) Peu de temps après Pelléas et Mélisande,  la jeune cantatrice eut un désaccord avec Albert Carré, directeur et quitta ce théâtre. En 1903, elle rejoint la liste au Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie à Bruxelles, où elle est apparue dans cinq opéras au cours des deux prochaines saisons. Elle a ensuite fait ses débuts au Royal Opera House, à Londres, en 1905, dans le rôle d'Orphée.

Pendant cette période, son répertoire a commencé à augmenter notamment. Voici un enregistrement de L'Air de Lia de "L'Enfant Prodigue:

 Elle est venue en Amérique du Nord en 1907 et presque immédiatement atteint un grand succès en tant que chanteuse, jusqu'à sa mort tragique et prématurée en 1915, à 32 ans, d'une maladie provoquée par une intoxication alimentaire.

 Au cours de la période américaine,on peut commencer à voir les enregistrements d'œuvres dramatiques d’opéra italien. Je crois que si elle ne était pas morte si jeune, nous aurions vu beaucoup plus de ce genre de musique, surtout compte tenu du fait que l'italien a toujours été la langue de l'opéra en Amérique. Voici un bon exemple de ce que nous aurions pu nous attendre! Ce est un enregistrement de “Stride La Vampa,”  Il Trovatore 1911:

Quelque soit la musique, quelque soit la langue, une chose est certaine: c’ était l'un des plus grands de voix de contralto!


Sunday, February 22, 2015

                                                                  BEVERLY SILLS

Beverly Sills, (Belle Miriam Silverman) was born in 1929 in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents were Ukrainian immigrants, and as a child Sills was exposed to many languages at home, including French, Yiddish, and Russian, along with her native English. This exposure gave her a very natural facility with foreign languages, which was helpful in her later career.

Sills was precocious in the extreme as a child. Starting by winning a child beauty contest at the age of 3, she began performing on the radio at the age of 4 as "Bubbles" Silverman. She started taking lessons with Estelle Liebling, and by 1937, when she was 8 years old, she had appeared in a film, released the following year, which fortunately is preserved and viewable on Youtube. Because it tells us so very much about her, I think that here is a good place to see it. The film is called "Uncle Sol Solves It," and it is far more than a vaudeville shtick because of the difficulty of the piece, and the serious way Sills sings. Notice the extraordinary presence and charm of this little girl!  Also, watch the video to the very end and notice Uncle Sol's final advice to her:

Now how adorable is that!? The amazing thing is that she handles the fioratura quite well! Also, she has been taught, or naturally understands, what the great bel canto tenor Fernando de Lucía once told his student Georges Thill: "...per cantare bene, bisogna aprire la bocca!!" Which little Bubbles did! It's not hard to see why they called her "Bubbles," is it:-) Also, one other thing needs to be noticed. Did you notice Uncle Sol's advice at the end? Stay right here and study in this country., no matter how hanxious your hancestors are to do otherwise:-) .....we have great teachers here. That was one of the first things I noticed. It is important, because this was the grateful and patriotic attitude of so many at that time. The culture these Jewish immigrants, largely from Russia and Eastern Europe, brought to this country was enormous, beyond measure. You can see it in Sill's life-long attitude and work, and also in the attitudes of Jan Peerce, Roberta Peters, and many others. What they went on to contribute—and still do—is a story in itself, one of which every American can be proud, and for which all should be grateful.

Liebling encouraged little Beverly to appear on radio talent shows, which she did, and won a series of them, bringing increasing attention to herself. By age 16, she had joined a Gilbert and Sullivan touring company and began accumulating practical stage experience. Two years later, at 18, she made her operatic stage debut as the Spanish gypsy Frasquita in Bizet's Carmen with the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company. By 1953, when she was 24, she appeared with the San Francisco opera as Helen of Troy in Boito's Mefistofele, and also sang Elivra in Don Giovanni with them the same year. From this moment on, her career virtually exploded. She went on, over the course of her career, to sing very many roles, in virtually all the major houses. Although she sang a repertoire from Handel, Mozart and Puccini, to Massenet and Verdi, she was known for her performances in coloratura soprano roles. Favorite operas were Lucia, La Fille du Régiment, Manon, Les Contes d'Hoffmann, The Barber of Seville, Roberto Devereux, La Traviata, and I Puritani.

Sills' life was music, from beginning to end: it never stops. The honors and accolades were extraordinary, as was her public relations work on behalf of music and charity, her administrative work at New York City Opera, and The Metropolitan. It is a vast biography, much too long to discuss here, but very easily consulted. Also, she has written an autobiography She was, without question, one of the most famous and respected figures in mid-twentieth century American cultural life.

Let us turn to Sills the artist. Here she is in her preferred repertoire, singing "Come per me sereno" from Bellini's La Sonnambula. It is a real coloratura tour-de-force. The trills, fioratura, and (very) high notes are simply stunning. It is a video of a certain length (nine minutes). If you have not the time to listen to it all now, skip the recitative. You don't want to miss any fireworks:

There simply can be no doubt about that technique. It is extraordinary, by any standard. The principles of bel canto singing have been thoroughly internalized, to the point where they simply come to define the singing. Few other sopranos of the twentieth century could match those trills. Sutherland could, but after that one starts to run down the list. Just amazing. And the speed of the coloratura is dazzling. This is a woman who was almost born singing, and was well taught from childhood. I would be so bold as to say that her technique was second to none.

Finally, from an American opera, the "Willow Song" from The Ballad of Baby Doe, by Douglas Moore. Sills distinguished herself in this opera, and was Moore's personal favorite in the title role (watch her, around 2:50, pick a D natural above high C out of the air!)

To a very great soprano, from a grateful American public—Thank you, Bubbles!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Emma Calvé: The Great Femme Fatale

Emma Calvé:  The Great Femme Fatale




Emma Calvé was born in 1858, in Aveyron. She spent her childhood in Spain, but moved to Paris with her mother after her parents separated. She began her vocal studies at this point. Her debut was in Brussels in 1881, in Faust, but she did not find much if any success at the beginning, and small roles over the next year or so were not much of a showcase. She returned to Paris and began to study with Mathilde Marchesi, a well-known mezzo soprano of the day who had herself studied with Manuel García, the famous teacher and codifier of bel canto singing techniques. She did not now have to wait long for success. After a tour of Italy, where she watched and studied famous and successful singers, she returned to Paris in 1891 to create the part of Suzel in Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz. She scored a success, and was asked to create the role of Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. That turned out to be the magic moment. Italian melodrama, the staple of the newly emerging verismo, perfectly suited her intense temperament, renowned acting abilities, and artistic instincts. Her success was huge and she went on to repeat it in London. Santuzza was ever after considered one of her signature roles, another being Carmen. Both these roles presented Calvé with an opportunity to display all her skills, which were everywhere celebrated. She was, in fact, so fiery and melodramatic in her stage portrayals that some newspaper critics were offended by such earthy and passionate emotional displays from a woman on the pubic stage. It did not conform at all—especially in Victorian London—to upper middle class notions of female propriety, even (or perhaps particularly) in the theater.

Here is a recording made in 1907 of "Voi lo sapete, o mamma." It needs to be remembered that we are dealing here with a soprano from so long ago (she was born two years before the American Civil War began!) that even her earliest recordings capture only the voice of a middle aged woman. She was, for example, nearly 50 years old when this record was made:



An absolutely fascinating recording from one hundred and four years ago! It is immediately apparent that the intensity and melodrama, if you will, of her presentation is strictly musical and stylistic in its nature. There is no shouting, no grating, gasping sobs, or any other kind of artistic indiscretion that some sopranos (especially mezzo sopranos) allow to infiltrate this piece. Her vocal instincts were always musical; it was the dramatic conception of the music and—from virtually all accounts—her acting that was so special. Indeed, she uses a vocal technique (the famously dark and intense chest voice so common in Belle Époque singing), to make her dramatic points. Its discreet use turns out to be all that is necessary to convey the emotional intensity of the music here. She leaves the essentially soprano part of her voice free from such affectation.

Let us turn to the other role for which she was so famous—Carmen. So powerful, according to contemporary accounts, was her portrayal of Carmen that it was many years before any other soprano or mezzo soprano could claim to equal it. Some record collectors claim that CD re-recordings do not do justice to the subtlety or intensity of her voice and pronunciation because record companies have "muffled" the sound in an attempt to get rid of the scratches on the old records. To put that idea to the test, here is a 1908 recording, directly from the old record, of the "Seguidilla" from Carmen. I ask you to tolerate the scratches in favor of the "live" feeling of the recording, and again, I stress the musicality of the vocal drama:


I think the old recording does give a better idea of the vocal drama being played out here.

A word is in order about the classification of her voice. The term "mezzo-soprano" was not much used in Calve's era. She was most commonly called simply "soprano." The floods of classifications were to come later, largely invented by critics. I have written elsewhere on this subject, and I do not hesitate to reiterate my feeling that much of this is simply unnecessary. There are other ways to describe voices than to create a new category every time some singer sounds a bit different from another singing the same parts. I daresay the old SATB choral designations would work remarkably well if we talked more about color, flexibility and tone, and less about mezzo, lyric, dramatic, coloratura, spinto, leggiero, profundo, etc. etc. etc. But I digress:) Let's settle for “soprano with a strong chest register” in Calve's case.

Actually, there is, in addition to all the drama, a lot of traditional bel canto soprano to be tapped here, as can be amply demonstrated by this lovely recording of "Charmant oiseau," from Félicien David's La Perle du Brésil, 1908:



Emma Calvé was important in her day because she led the way for women as passionate, real flesh and blood characters on the stage. That she could do so within the aesthetic framework of traditionally beautiful singing makes her all the more remarkable.

Saturday, February 14, 2015




Father Cornelius Mattei


It is a great pleasure for me to

present, in our continuing series

of guest authors, Father Cornelius Mattei,

Monastery of The Holy Cross, East Setauket, New York.

Father is a genuine authority on French art and culture,

most especially classical vocal music.  His willingness

to share that vast knowledge with us today is generous

and much appreciated!  -Edmund StAustell



When considering great opera singers, to whom this blog is dedicated, we are first captivated by the sound of a voice. What do the recorded voices of, say, Caruso, Chaliapin, Callas share?

They are unmistakable...a personal timbre and manner which puts them beyond the possibility of confusion with any other voice. Such was the case with Denise Scharley (1917-2011), for those who were privileged to experience her performances in the flesh, an unforgettable force of nature. Indeed, for the author of these words, an almost overwhelming encounter across the footlights of the Palais Garnier….the Paris Opera... which, nearly a half-century on, remains a burning memory. So, by way of introduction, let us hear her in this rare audio clip, in the very rôle and with the same tenor, Paul Finel, who sang with her in Carmen that evening.



Born Denise Besse in Picardy, where her father had relocated his young family from their native Angoulême due to wartime employment, she proved robust enough to survive a near
fatal encounter with the Spanish influenza epidemic. Denise grew up in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil and, encouraged by her father, a gifted amateur with a fine bass voice, cultivated
her own singing, originally as a soprano! Accepted into the Paris Conservatoire just before the beginning of the Second World War, she supported herself as a secretary. A student of baritone Roger Bourdin, she was soon singing operettas and musical revues at the Châtelet theater, as well as opera, gaining valuable stage experience: her first Carmen at the Théâtre Montansier in Versailles. In 1942, she graduated with three ¨Premiers Prix,¨ high honors, with a contract for the Opéra Comique. There, on November 29 1942, she made her official début as Geneviève in Pelléas et Mélisande. She was an immediate success. Indeed her career, although limited to Europe, was one of... dare one say.. almost monotonous success. Such parts as Mignon, Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther and Carmen were soon to follow in rapid succession. After the end of hostilities, Scharley…. a stage name adopted from a childhood nickname...newly married to the baritone Jacques Hivert (also a stage name, the family name is Lecaillon), remembered from the original cast and recording of Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias began singing further afield. There were brief appearances in Belgium, England, the Netherlands and Switzerland, but above all in Italy where, besides appearances in Naples and Bologna, she appeared as Carmen in Rome opposite Mario del Monaco in his first-ever Don  José. That was in 1947. The following year, she had the first of several contretemps with management over the course of her career and quit on the spot, spending the next four years mostly at the Monnaie in Brussels and in the French theaters from Belgium to North Africa.During that time she bore two children, Sylvie and Gérard, the latter a well-regarded actor and director.  

Returning to Paris, she made her début at the Opéra in 1952, remaining there until 1973. Shortly after her return, as Maddalena in Rigoletto, she was entrusted with the rôle of the

eponymous temptress in Saint-Saën’s Samson et Dalila.

Here is  ¨Amour, viens aider...¨ 


Besides Carmen, the rôle she sang most often, Dalila was her other protagonist ¨warhorse,¨ sung opposite all the tenors who appeared in Paris as Samson in the 1950s and 60s: Luccioni

and Verdière, Delmonaco and Chauvet. One notes, however, that Scharley performed an eclectic répertoire, from Rameau and Gluck via Verdi and Wagner (she sang both Erda and the

First Norn in the Knappertsbusch-led first-ever German-language Ring at the Opéra) to Milhaud, Honegger, Sauget, Stravisnky and, most significantly Poulenc: her most unforgettable creation being the rôle of Mme. de Croissy, the Old Prioress, in the Dialogues of the Carmelites in the French-language version, the Italian version having been mounted first at La Scala as the score was the property of the Milan publisher, Ricordi. Most collectors in North America will know her via her electrifying contribution to the original Paris cast recording, 1958. The present author can attest to its heart-stopping impact: sitting in an audience so overcome as to be hardly able to breathe at the end of the scene of her atrocious death, let alone applaud! 

During the second half of her forty-one year professional career...she retired in 1983….Scharley sang without let-up, gradually giving up her more glamorous rôles. Whether in Paris or Geneva, her second artistic home, Marseilles, Venice,Toulouse, Bordeaux, Barcelona or Rouen, she was

Indefatigable. Developing a close artistic relationship with Giancarlo Menotti, she created the French language version of The Medium in Marseille, and later at the Opéra Comique, 1968. Excerpts from the television film of that production may be seen on YouTube. Not only did she make Madame Flora her own, but she also appeared in The Consul and Maria Golovine. She also shone as Carmen Gloria in the one-woman opera by Raffaelo de Banfield known in French as Tango pour une femme seule and in Italian as Colloquio col tango. She also appeared in his Alissa and Lord Byron’s Love Letter. Her final Paris appearances were in Daniel-Lesur’s Ondine in 1982. Her farewell to the stage, after more than forty years, was as Dame Marthe in Faust in Toulouse the following year. Let’s hear her once more:


What to say of Scharley’s voice? If I have withheld comment, it is because the reader’s ear may be more adept to receive than I am to describe. The voluminous and almost uniformly

laudatory reviews of her performances in several languages by most of the prominent music critics in Europe...she never crossed the Atlantic, alas…. ever praise the unique, smoky timbre and homogeneity of that dramatic mezzo-soprano voice impinged upon contralto depths which make such as the descent to the final low A of the Samson and Delilah aria appended here so memorable. What recordings cannot convey was her physical, kick-to-the-solar-plexus stage

persona, compounding the impact of that hard-hitting voice...with her concentrated, restrained movements, blazing green eyes and strong features….when she walked onstage all eyes were on her. When she opened her mouth to sing, she ¨sucked up¨ all the oxygen in the theater. 

At seventeen years of age, I could not sleep the night of that first Carmen. It was as if she had thrown that flower to me. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one!

                                      Father Cornelius Mattei


Friday, February 6, 2015

Agustarello Affré



[I am very pleased today to present some additional comment from Father Cornelius Mattei, whose knowledge of French opera and opera singers is simply extraordinary, far beyond what I have or could ever hope  to have.  Any comments from Father end with (FC).  Edmund]

Agustarello Affré (1858-1931) was a French operatic tenor who possessed a powerful and ringing voice, owing to which he was nicknamed the "French Tamagno"  after the great Italian tenor. He was one of the outstanding operatic tenors in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. He spent the last years of his career singing and directing operas in the United States, most particularly in New Orleans.  After World War I, he lived in retirement in France.

Born in Saint-Chinian, Affré was trained at the Conservatoire de Toulouse and the Conservatoire de Paris. He studied singing with Edmond Duvernoy and Pierre Gailhard.  After singing in theatres in the French provinces, he made his debut in Paris at the Opéra in 1890 as Edgardo in Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor opposite Nellie Melba in the title role, who was also making  her debut . He remained a leading tenor at the Opéra  for the next 20 years, portraying such roles as Arnold in William Tell, Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, Eléazar in La Juive, Fernando in La favorita, Jean de Leyde in Le prophète, Rhadames in Aida, Raoul de Nangis in Les Huguenots, Renaud in Gluck's Armide, Vasco da Gama in L'Africaine, and the title roles in Lohengrin and Sigurd. He created the role of the Touranien prisoner in the world premiere of Jules Massenet's Le Mage in 1891.   

It seems that Affré is everywhere described as a “heroic” or “dramatic” tenor.  Such categorizations, however, in 1908 or 1910, have little or no meaning. Affré’s world was basically that of bel canto. Terms such as “dramatic ” just as often refer to acting style, or to the various excesses of verismo. 

Here is “Ah, Parais, “ from Massenet’s Le Mage:

OK.  Let’s talk terminology here.  Is that a dramatic tenor? A heroic tenor?  Perhaps.  What CAN be said is that Affré had  a strong tenor voice, very well trained,  with a wide range.  Simply, he knew what he was doing,  and he was an excellent musician and stylist.  He did NOT scream and shout.  The French have always prized  elegance and precision above almost all else.  Affré was no exception.  Here is something eye-opening.  Manrico is a stellar example of a dramatic tenor role.  One thinks immediately of Corelli or  Giacomini.  Let’s see how a famous French tenor called “dramatic” handles “Ah si ben mio” 111 years ago.  I particularly call your attention to the trills, something you are not likely to hear today, at least not at this spot in the libretto.  Remember, this is the age of bel canto:

     I would not call that a dramatic tenor, at least not by contemporary  standards.  Maybe “spinto.”  I’ll give you that.  One thing is for sure, and that is that this is about  as fine an example of classy singing as  you are likely ever to hear in Trovatore!  Here is Father Cornelius’ observation:

 “Hey, somebody had to preserve those trills....and the French tenors seem to have been among the keepers thereof…Dalmorès, for example. As in most of his recordings, Affré   shows that a big voice need not sacrifice a finely sculpted sostenuto line(FC)   

      Here is another  role commonly sung by dramatic tenors:

“ always with Affre, firm tone, spot-on intonation in consequence, freed by his technical mastery, able to express the text very Eleazar's exaltation, despite his fears, is plainly evident and contagious....not forgetting the pellucid enunciation... no need for supertitles...well, if you understand French.  Not always apparent in recordings...his daughter's recollections about the difficulties inherent in recording this big, vibrant voice are instructive....the top tones shone like a big diamond, hovering over the stage and the auditorium.  Lucky New Orléans, where he sang, and even directed the old French Opera House before it burned to the ground. Merci, cher maître.” (FC)

 I am no master compared to you, FatherJ  but I  appreciate  your comments,  which are excellent.. 

     And now, here is something from Romeo and Juliet, a more clearly lyric repertoire, at which Affré excelled equally.  This is truly beautiful:

Finally, a few words need to be said about the very early date of some of Affré’s recordings, and also about his final days.  He was something of a recording pioneer, and performed on some of the  earliest opera recordings, including 4-minute cylinders made in Paris.

Some of his earliest recordings highlight excerpts from the roles of  Don José in Carmen (1911) and,  as we just heard, of Roméo in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (1913).

In 1911, Affré moved to the United States, where he was heard in operas in New Orleans, San Francisco, and in Havana. He became director of the French Opera House in New Orleans in 1913 when it came under the ownership of Tulane University,and remained there until 1915. He died in Cagnes-sur-Mer in 1931 at the age of 73  is buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

This was a truly great tenor from long ago, in whom the best traditions of the distant past, both vocal and dramatic, were permitted to survive into the modern period.  I truly believe that it will not be long before the era of verismo opera will be seen to have been more short-lived than the preceding era of bel canto , signs of which are now beginning to re-emerge in the unexpected revival of 18th century opera.

                                                                       Fr. Cornelius Mattei