Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Opera Acts, Part 2

Karen Henson. Opera Acts: Singers and Performance in the Late Nineteenth Century. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

The next chapter covers the career of the Polish tenor Jean de Reszke and the development of what we now think of as the Heldentenor voice type. De Reszke was one of five siblings, three of whom has significant opera careers. The sister Josephine was a well-known coloratura soprano who later focused on “falcon” (or dramatic soprano) roles. (Had she lived longer she might have sung in some of the earlier Parisian Wagner productions.) His brother Edouard was an accomplished bass. Jean began singing as a baritone but retrained as a tenor before moving to Paris where he began his career as a tenor singing in the operas of Massenet. Massenet was composing for tenor mostly in the then-new full-throated technique but still sometimes calling for pianissimo high notes that would likely have been sung in voix mixte. From there he premiered the final revision of Gounod’s RomĂ©o et Juliette at the Paris OpĂ©ra (an unlikely choice for a former baritone on his way to becoming a Wagnerian), then Radames in Aida and finally his first Wagner role, Lohengrin. Then he added Walther (Die Meistersinger von NĂŒrnberg). 

Jean and his brother Edouard then moved to New York where they were primarily associated with Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera. In 1895 he sang his first Tristan opposite Lillian Nordica with his brother singing King Marke. From there the younger Siegfried with Nellie Melba as BrĂŒnnhilde (!). Of his Tristan, the New York Times critic William J. Henderson, up to that point accustomed to hearing Tristans bark and shout their way through the challenging third act said:

Jean de Reszke’s incomparable skill in the management of the vocal organs overcame all the difficulties of the scene. The cantabile was sung with fluency, breadth of style, perfect intonation, and deep emotion. The exclamatory speeches were delivered in the true dramatic parlando, in which song so closely approaches speech that the boundary lines are almost obliterated. Yet, in delivering these speeches in this manner, M. de Reszke sacrificed nothing in their tremendous force, and it may be doubted whether any artist ever achieved a more thrilling effect than he did with that speech
. (p. 150)

In an epilogue, Henson goes into detail about singers who had been mentioned in the previous three chapters. 

Emma CalvĂ©, the famous French verismo soprano is discussed in terms of her learning to use whistle register (which she credited to her study with the castrato Domenico MustafĂ , then the director of the Sistine Chapel choir), and her incorporation of the then-new realistic style of acting that was becoming popular in the works of Zola, Ibsen, and others. CalvĂ© also claimed to have done cultural research in preparation for roles: visiting Spain to prepare for Carmen, visiting an asylum to prepare to play OphĂ©lie, etc. Such role prep would now be considered obligatory for any serious actor but was novel in her time. “Calvé built on the achievements of an earlier, realist-minded generation and introduced innovations that continue to be part of performance today.”

Victor Carpoul, a French tenor was a star at the OpĂ©ra-Comique famous for his light and “seductive” singing. After Duprez’s famous chest-voice high C at the Paris OpĂ©ra in 1837, the older, lighter approach to tenor high notes continued to flourish at the OpĂ©ra-Comique until 1871 when Adolphe Duchesne sang at least one chest voice high note during a performance of Ferdinand HĂ©rold’s Le PrĂ© aux clercs. (Note: I have been trying for some time to find an original source for this event and have so far not been successful.) Capoul appeared at the Metropolitan Opera during its inaugural season and after retiring from singing took a position as Directeur des Ă©tudes dramatiques at the Paris OpĂ©ra in the 1880s where he was charged with improving the level of acting there. Unfortunately, he did not publish his ideas about acting in opera.

French Baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure was known for the beauty of his voice and the tastefulness of his interpretations. He began his career at the OpĂ©ra-Comique. Success in London at Covent Garden led to contracts at the Paris OpĂ©ra. He was famous for a number of roles including the title roles in Don Giovanni and Guillaume Tell, Posa in Don Carlos and the title role in Thomas’s Hamlet. His later career included oratorio and concerts which sometimes including some of his own compositions, the most popular of which were two songs on religious themes, “Le Crucifix” and “Les Rameaux.” (The latter was once perennial Palm Sunday favorite in a choral arrangement.) He taught briefly at the Conservatoire where he published La voix et le chant, a traditional method, from a period in which singers were more likely to publish memoires or observations on singing and acting.

Marie Heibron was a Belgian soprano active in the 1870s and 1880s. She studied at the Conservatoire with tenor Gilbert-Louis Duprez and had a career at a variety of theaters including premieres of operas by Massenet and others. She was a gifted singer and actor whose personal life often dominated both her successes and failures. 

Paul LhĂ©rie (1844-1937) was the first Don JosĂ© in Carmen after which he continued in a career as a baritone. Like Galli-MariĂ© he may have played a role in the composition of Bizet’s most famous opera. Among other things that occurred during what was a difficult rehearsal process it was LhĂ©rie and Galli-MariĂ© who insisted that the OpĂ©ra-Comique keep Bizet’s original tragic ending instead of replacing it with the standard opĂ©ra-comique happy ending. (A young Vincent d’Indy was hired to accompany L’hĂ©rie in the offstage (and in the score a capella) song “Les Dragons d’Alcala.”) As a tenor he struggled, and for a time he was taking on both tenor and baritone roles. But it was as a baritone that he had his most significant success taking on roles like Verdi’s Rigoletto, Conte di Luna and Germont, and Posa in the premiere of the revised four-act version of Don Carlo at La Scala. He also premiered the role of Rabbi David in Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz. 

Paola MariĂ© was the sister of CĂ©lestine Galli-MariĂ©, and an accomplished operetta soprano in her own right. They were the daughters of MĂ©cĂšne MariĂ© de l’Isle who created the role of Tonio is La Fille du regiment. Paola was known for her a lively stage presence and an agile voice and often performed in pants roles. 

Édouard de Reszke was a Polish=French bass and the brother of Jean de Reszke. The two often appeared together in operas from the 1880s until Édouard’s retirement. He had a large and powerful voice and an imposing physique. 

Josephine de Reszke was a Polish soprano, sister of Jean and Édouard, who was a star of the Paris OpĂ©ra after its relocation to the Palais Garnier. As discussed earlier she was a falcon, a dramatic soprano with a short top. Only once did she appear on stage with both of her brothers in a production of HĂ©rodiade. She unfortunately died too young to have left behind any recordings.

There are many recent books and articles exploring singers and instrumentalists for whom music was composed and the sociological, economic, and political worlds in which music was created and performed. Opera Acts is part of the Cambridge Opera Series which includes many interesting volumes. I think they will be of great interest to BCBCers who perform or enjoy the eras and repertoires explored.