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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Renee Doria: Iron Woman

Renée  Doria:  Iron Woman

By Father Cornelius Mattei

     She sang over 2500 performances during an onstage career of more than forty years; 76 rôles on stage, 125 rôles on radio broadcasts:   she recorded over a period spanning one half century. Let  us honor in this blog the living the term in not abused...still among us at  age 94, Mme. Renée Doria.

       Born at Perpignan on February 13, 1921 to a musical family, she studied both piano and voice, making her professional début as a singer, age 18, in concert. A protegée of composer and conductor Reynaldo Hahn, she stepped onto the operatic stage for the first time as Rosina in the Barber of Seville at Marseille in 1942. Not long ago there surfaced an air-check of a performance from Radio Provence late that year: she sings Constanza’s ¨aria di salita,¨ under Hahn’s baton, following their performances of ¨Abduction¨ at the Cannes Casino. Let’s hear it:

       A lyric ¨soprano d’agilità,¨ Doria was soon singing in theaters in wartime France under the stressful conditions then prevalent on both sides of the line of demarcation, eventually making her Paris début as Lakmé at the Gaieté Lyrique in 1943, the same rôle serving for her début on October 20 1946 at the Opéra Comique. From a contemporary radio broadcast, here she is in that calling-cardrôle, with André Pernet as Nilakantha:

Other rôles followed: Rosina, Olympia, Philine, Manon, Leïla, Violetta. On January 4, 1947, she made her début at the Opéra as the queen of the night in The Magic Flute, a rôle which she dropped permanently after two performances only, thereafter preferring Pamina, another of the eleven Mozart roles which figured in her répertoire, often in both the original language, and sometimes in multiple French translations! Mme.Doria performed at both Paris theaters until the dawn of the 1960s, amid an intensive and extensive career in the then still very active theaters throughout France as well as Belgium, in Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain. Listen to this unusual rarity from a RadioNetherlands broadcast, circa 1947:

Renée Doria was the last ¨historic¨ Ophélie in Thomas’ ¨Hamlet,¨appearing with that American prodigal son, Endrèze during his farewell to the rôle. She also sang, if memory serves, two performances of Don Pasquale with Tito Schipa, that artist’s only staged opera performances in Paris.

       Married to the recording producer, vocal connoisseur and collector Guy Dumazert, Mme. Doria recorded extensively, almost always those things she sang on stage or in concert. One of the things which needs be mentioned here is that through her recording of Thaïs...another of her successes onstage... she had an impact on many, if not most, sopranos who listened to the following scene and have thereafter attempted the high pianissimo...twice as long as the note in the printed score:

       As with LauriVolpi’s extended high B at the end of ¨Nessun dorma,¨ or Vickers’ emendations in ¨Peter Grimes,¨ the tailoring of the score to the talents, preferences and style of a distinguished interpreter has an inevitable impact when it creates a memorable effect, as here.

       The other subject which needs, in my opinion, to be mentioned, is the subject of vocal timbre. Although recorded ab extenso. Mme Doria’s voice was, as with many crystalline soprano voices, from Melba and dal Monte to Luciana Serra, not very faithfully captured by recording technology: the simple, clear sound has never been favored by either horn or microphone. The rich aureola of harmonics which surround such a the theater… a sound whose very top tones are set upon a solid integration of chest resonance throughout the entire vocal range, thus ensuring stability, longevity and retention of the top tones through a long career. What sounds like a hard, shrill quality, to those who know such voices in person, results from distortion excited and exacerbated by the microphones’ favoring of dark or ¨rich’ sounds, the cultivation of which has demonstrably shortened the careers of a number of prominent soprani,abridging their high tones and introducing a ¨wobble¨ as a result of cutting the ¨head¨ resonancefree from anchoring in the ¨chest.¨  Here is Renée Doria, in a rôle which she did not perform onstage, but recorded to critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic-- Fanny in Massénet’s ¨Sapho¨:


       That was in 1978, and was her last complete opera recording. Continuing to sing in concert after her farewell to the operatic stage in 1981, as late as 1993, she was still recording. Let’s sample one of those last sessions:

Why ¨Iron Woman?¨ Well, Renée Doria, over the course of her career, performed feats of endurance which bear testament to her skill, determination and ironclad technique: three Manons and three Mireilles during the course of single weekends at the Opéra Comique (Friday and Saturday evenings, Sunday matinée)... her scheduled performances and covering for indisposed colleagues. Two other memorable occasions of heavy lifting also deserve mention: once, following a Thursday night Rosina at the Comique, she sang Violetta at the Opéra on Saturday night, hopped on a night train to Strasbourg and sang ¨Thaïs¨ en matinée the following afternoon. On another occasion, she began her week singing two ¨Manon¨ in Geneva, passed, once more through Strasbourg, singing all three heroines in ¨Hoffman,¨ and rounding off the calendar week in two ¨Lucia di Lammermoor¨ appearances at Rouen. Children, don’t try that at home!  Lets bid farewell, but not goodbye to her, as Louise :

Subtle, discreet. A deeply felt performance free of eccentricity and self indulgence.


                                                         Father Cornelius Mattei                          

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Great Claire Croiza
Claire Croiza  was born in 1882 in Paris, the daughter of an  American father and an Italian mother.  She was, even as a  child, clearly gifed in music.  She was taught singing privately at first, but then, as she began to grow up, she had the great good fortune to have been sent  to the famous Polish tenor Jean de Reszke for further study.  De Reszke was not only a great tenor—one of the best of his day, in the 19th century—but also, importantly, a renowned teacher and he taught many aspiring singers who would go on to have great success.

After advanced study with de Reszke, Croize made her opera début at the relatively tender age of 23 in Nancy in 1905 in Messaline by Isidore de Lara. The following year she made her first appearance at La Monnaie in Brussels, as Dalila in Samson et Dalila, beginning a long association with that theatre which included such works as Elektra, Carmen, La favorite, Werther and singing the title role in Fauré's opera Pénélope. In 1910 she performed in the world premiere of Cesare Galeotti’s La Dorise and created the title role in the world premiere of Pierre de Bréville's Éros vainqueur at La Monnaie. It was again as Dalila that she made her Paris Opera début in 1908.  Although Croiza  first established herself as an operatic singer, she increasingly developed her career as a recitalist specialising in mélodies, and she undertook recital tours in numerous countries, including making frequent visits to London where she was very well received. She had a great feeling for the French language and was always able to enunciate the words in a clear and natural way without sacrificing the flow of the music. Several contemporary composers chose to accompany her personally in performances of their songs, including Ravel (in Shéhérazade), Fauré (in the premiere of Le jardin clos), Poulenc, Roussel, and Honegger.

Here, however,  is one of the fairly rare operatic recordings which Croiza made with Armand 

Narçon of excerpts from Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande:

     From 1922, she also worked as a teacher, giving classes in interpretation at the École Normale, and from 1934 at the Paris Conservatoire. Her pupils included Janine Micheau, Suzanne Juyol, Camille Maurane and the baritones Jacques Jansen and Gérard Souzay.

In 1926 Croiza gave birth to a son, Jean-Claude (1926–2003), whose father was Honegger, The parents did not marry. Although distinct,  her personal life was not all that far from the traditional personal lives of famous artists of her day.  As for her artistic reputation, it was,  virtually from the beginning, truly extraordinary.  Reviews from the early 1930’s spoke of her as “ a supreme interpreter of modern French song, saying that she “brings to them an exquisite sensibility that reveals every shade of meaning in the poems" (New York Times). This view was reinforced in an obituary tribute (also in The New York Times) which spoke of: "Her consummate musicianship, unerring in its intuition, sensitiveness, charm and subtlety, exquisite diction and phrasing, combined with deep poetical feeling and a restrained but profoundly moving dramatic sense allied to an unusually wide culture…”

Reduced to their essence, these critical comments have a theme, and that is one that can be further summarized by words such as  “elegance, ”  sensitivity, “ intellectual precision,” and “musical excellence.”  Here is an example; one which I will be bold enough to call typical.  Here is Duparc’s “Invitation au voyage:

Finally, here is one of the most elegantly beautiful pieces of music ever penned by the great Debussy, who was most fortunated to have it recorded by the amazing Claire Croiza:





Saturday, April 11, 2015

                                                           THE  GREAT BEN HEPPNER
Ben Heppner has been respected and applauded world-wide as one of the greatest heroic tenors to be seen and heard in many years. Born in British Columbia (Murrayville) in 1956, Heppner studied voice at the University of British Columbia and began to attract national attention primarily through contests, beginning with the Canadian Broadcasting Talent Festival in 1979. He went on to do a great deal of concertizing over the course of the next several years, and in 1988 won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions, and also the Birgit Nilsson Prize. From that moment on, Heppner went quickly to an international career, largely in the Wagnerian repertoire. He rapidly became, in the opinion of many critics and his increasingly large audience, one of the world's greatest Heldentenors. He performed for years at  the Metropolitan Opera and throughout all the major houses of Europe, not only in Wagner, but also in the heavier Italian repertoire, such as Andrea Chenier and Otello. He has made a rather astonishingly large number of recordings, in French, Italian, and German. His recordings include leading parts and title roles in Fidelio, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tristan und Isolde, Lohengrin, Otello and Berlioz's Aeneas.

To his credit, Heppner never slighted the French repertoire, and in fact the first recording he produced after signing an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammaphon was "Airs Français," which won a Juno Award. He has additionally, over the course of the last several years, been a marked presence at sporting events, including the Olympics. He was frequently heard singing the Canadian National Anthem, in which he always includes verses in French, and he has also recorded the Marseillaise. His attention to French music has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated in France.

First, the German repertoire, in which Heppner is everywhere accorded the status of a master. Here is Richard Strauss' very popular "Zueignung:"


There are very few within this repertoire who can match the power, color and even beauty of this extraordinary voice. It is easy enough, on Youtube, to hear Heppner sing many of the classics of the Wagnerian repertoire, such as "In Fernem Land," or Walter's "Prize Song." They are a bit too long to include here.

It is not only the Wagnerian repertoire, however, where Heppner shines. For a Heldentenor, he sings Italian quite well, and is vocally convincing in roles such as Andrea Chenier or Otello. Here is a very stirring rendition of the Italian Singer's aria from Der Rosenkavalier, "Di Rigori Armato il Seno." Strauss did not particularly like tenors, and he also had some feelings about Italian opera in general. This aria was intended to mock the excesses of Italian singing, but that kind of thing tends generally to backfire, because to a very large extent opera IS Italian music! It certainly backfired here, since this aria turned out to be one of the most popular pieces from Rosenkavalier, and just about every famous tenor in the world has recorded it! Although short, it is most difficult to sing, because it is has very high notes and florid phrases. It also, perhaps in spite of Strauss' intentions, happens to be extremely beautiful!

Now isn't that something! I think it safe to say that there are few Heldentenors now or ever who could do that. Heppner is unafraid of heights. He has even recorded "Di Quella Pira" in the original key. It can be easily found on Youtube.  Just look up Heppner, "Di Quella Pira."


Something else Heppner does amazingly well is sing in English, his native language, with absolutely none of the stress and strain, rolled "r" s, or muffled cover that for too many years marked (or marred) the attempts of English speakers trying to sing with trained voices in a comprehensible way. Here is the old and lovely "Roses of Picardy:"


Absolutely lovely! Sung in the modern manner, with enunciation as clear as that of any popular singer. Ben Heppner is a great tenor and a formidable artist, and richly deserves the fame he has come to enjoy over the course of the last twenty years.  He is now essentially semi-retired. He no longer sings  the Wagnerian works in deference to his age (he is now 58), but he continues to concertize and appear in those operas in which he is still comfortable, even modern pieces such as Moby Dick, which he helped create.  It has been an excellent career, and one of which he can deservedly be very proud.

Saturday, April 4, 2015



                                                FATHER CORNELIUS MATTEI

One raw, overcast Saturday morning long ago, I took the Métro from my student digs on the southern, to the northern edge of Paris and the flea market just past the Porte de Clignancourt to go record hunting, as was my wont. There, amid bins helpfully sorted by category, I came across an LP with a startling cover photograph of the bassechantante André Pernet. I had a firsthand report of his storied career from two habitués of the opera who spoke of him in hushed, awed tones, but was not ready for the treasure which those grooves were to unlock for my ears. Here were characters, fairly leaping from the speakers; a voice of  unique quality, as the greatest of singers possess; an opalescent, chameleon-like quality in which each phrase, line, word and, even, syllable was not only chiseled with rare precision, but also with distilled meaning and insight while respecting the composer and dramatic intent; able to turn ¨on a dime¨ and shift tone, mood and significance instantaneously. How often do we experience this from a nominally cold mechanical process? What does it take to produce and, in this listener, evoke vivid impressions for nearly a half century? Whatever it takes, André Pernet had it. His early life and career may be surveyed quickly.

Born January 8, 1894 in the historic town of Rambervilliers in the Vosges region of southeastern Lorraine, just inside the part of that province left to France after the débacle of 1870, André Pernet passed an uneventful childhood and adolescence. A good student, he had just finished his secondary studies and was preparing to study law when he was called to the colors at the beginning of the Great War in 1914. He rose quickly through the ranks, and by the end of the war in 1918 had become an officer.

       Immediately upon demobilization, Pernet applied himself to his studies and obtained his law degree, while developing his evidently fine voice by studying with the distinguished bass André Gresse, who had retired to become an equally famous voice teacher at the Paris Conservatoire. As far as can be determined, Pernet never practiced law, because, after two years of study and the year after his first marriage, to Mlle. Elizabeth Almeyer of Metz, he made his operatic début at Nice as Vitellius, the second bass rôle in Massenet’s ¨Hérodiade.¨ For seven years he crisscrossed France singing in small and medium-sized Theaters (appearances in Cannes, Toulouse, Deauville, Geneva and Strasbourg have been verified) in a wide variety of rôles in operas many of which by then maintained a tenuous foothold in the répertoires of the larger, more fashionable theaters. It would be instructive to introduce him in a work which he sang during that phase, only, of his career. Here is Jupiter’s lullaby from Gounod’s pastoral comedy ¨Philémon et Baucis.¨  

What tenderness, sweetness of tone and sure melding of voice and text! The voice is well extended over nearly two and one-half octaves. The King of the Gods sends the elderly couple to sleep, and we the listeners, through the magic of this interpretation--there is no other word for it --are similarly enfolded in a peerless example of extraordinary voice-painting allied to what was described by his contemporary critics as a silken tone.

      Pernet would soon famously learn how to evolve the ¨rocaileux¨ quality, in this context--a coruscating, kaleidoscopic tone which he used with surgical precision to create an unforgettable gallery of characters.   On July 7, 1928, shortly after a divorce and second marriage, to Thérèse Pauly, Pernet took the decisive step in his career, making his début at the Paris Opéra as Mephistopheles in Gounod’s ¨Faust.¨  So successful was this début that within his first 18 months at the Opéra, he had sung Wotan in Die Walküre, the title rôle in Boris Godunov, Athanaël in Thaïs, the Sultan of Khaïtan in Rabaud’s Marouf, and created two rôles in world premières of works which proved ephemeral. He appeared, besides, in two shorter rôles which benefit from a strong voice and personality: the King in Aïda and Gessler in Guillaume Tell, the latter with the legendary Irishman John O’Sullivan, as Arnold, Journet in the title rôle and Beaujon as Mathilde. The other artists are mentioned to emphasize that in those days the Opéra had on retainer quite a stable of voices; voices which, as one critic of those times said, stood as adamant, not to be overcome by 100 musicians in the pit: Lubin, Journet, Franz, Lapeyrette…..and then quickly adds that the young Pernet stood out from that stable of voices. His was not of their size, but his interpretations were marked by their unflinching fidelity to the intentions of composer and librettist: he cut precisely to the quick of his characters, imposing himself, dominating the stage and becoming a favorite of the public.

Boris became a winning ticket for Pernet throughout his career, and it proved to be his finale on stage, as we shall see. He presents a suffering Tsar, inspiring horror, eliciting pity.

       In the spring of 1930, shortly after he appeared for the first time as St. Bris in ¨Les Huguenots,¨again with O’Sullivan, he had a disagreement about his fees with management at the Opéra and did not appear for nearly one year, returning in March of 1931 as King Marke in Tristan und Isolde, with Lubin. He would add Gurnemanz in Parsifal to his Wagner rôles soon thereafter,as well as Mephistopheles in Berlioz’ Damnation de Faust. In those days, it should be recalled that the Opéra and Opéra Comique, a scant 500 meters apart, though out of sight of one another, were not a consolidated entity but competed in répertoire and for the services of singers. In the early 1930s Pernet added to his rôles at the Opéra those such as Basilio in Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia and Tonio in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, works usually associated with the smaller house.  Here is a superb “Prologue” from Pagliacci:

 With what insouciance Tonio steps through the curtain, as if stumbling by mistake into the auditorium and begging our pardon, then building the whole to a climax….as high A flat, but the whole whipped gradually into a state of rare exaltation in the dignity of common humanity with all its suffering.  Oh, and what of the smaller theater? While he was technically not on the roster at the Opéra during most of the 1930/31 season, Pernet betook himself down the street to the Place Boeildieu, making his début in the title rôle of Massenet’s ¨Don Quichotte¨ on January 19, 1931. He appeared, thus, concurrently, at both theaters, which again was almost unheard of before 1939. Although Pernet was a natural as the knight of the sorrowful countenance, it was a role which he undertook only sporadically through the remainder of his career. Others were there before him and were great audience favorites in that theater, such as VanniMarcoux.   First, however, here is Pernet as the chevalier errant:

A role more typical than the Don, for Pernet, was that of Ourrias in the famous revival, conducted by Reynaldo Hahn, of an ¨original¨ version of Gounod’s Mireille. With the able assistance of Henri Büsser, the tragic ending was reinstated, five acts consolidated into three, the extraneous valse, ¨O legère hirondelle¨ excised and the Air de la Crau reinstated, in essence what has become the standard version since then. Here is Pernet as the villainous bullherder of the Camargue:  

Reynaldo Hahn was responsible for one of Pernet’s greatest successes in a new opera, that being the première of his ¨Le Marchand de Venise,¨[Merchant of Venice] March 25, 1935, alongside Fanny Heldy as Portia, as well as Paul Cabanel and Martial Singher. Here Pernet incarnates a spiteful Shylock, spewing his hatred of those who use and despise him, with the composer conducting. Creator recordings don’t get any better:


Well, our story has, alas, a sad ending. A few weeks after a Geneva Boris performance, Pernet was struck down with what has been discreetly described as a ¨cruelle maladie¨ which ended his career completely. He was to languish for eighteen years in an asylum in the 14th arrondissement in Paris, until he died on June 17, 1966, aged 72. He became, it was said, totally paralysed, an unspecified ¨paralysis,¨ sans etiology, being usually cited in biographical sketches. I’ll just add that, in my humble opinion, those of his contemporaries who were in the know…. and of course, one must consider that there was considerable shame then as now about mental health and disease, as with cancer…. knew and spoke freely of his having suffered a complete emotional breakdown with attendant physical manifestations, thus, paralysis. One thinks of such great artists as Lina BrunaRasa or Suzanne Lefort, who were likewise afflicted, and those driven to despair and suicide. As with Pernet, they live on in memory through their recordings. Thank God we have those. To the writer of these words, no singer on records puts his imprint on the music and characters better than Pernet. His is the voice which comes to the mind’s ear in any of the music he recorded. What a magnificent singer he was!

                                                                     Father Cornelius Mattei


Saturday, March 28, 2015




Luisa Tetrazzini was born in 1871, in Florence. She began to sing as a small child, and was trained at the Instituto Musicale in Florence. By the age of 19 she was ready to make her debut as Inez in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. She sang around Italy, and then went to Russia, where she scored a big success in St. Petersburg. She was kept busy as a young lady, learning her craft and drawing increasing attention to herself by virtue of her superb voice. She was not beautiful, as was Patti, but was rather fat from early on. Her divine voice, however, spared her from any undue or cruel criticism for her appearance. From the earliest days, she displayed a flexible and high coloratura, of the kind that was very much in vogue in the lyric theater of the day. She commanded an extraordinary trill, easily produced, and was comfortable with extensive fioratura. There was a thrilling sound to her voice that won her acclaim early on in her career. Her American debut was in San Francisco in 1905. By this time, she was well known for her lyric coloratura roles, especially Violetta, Gilda and Lucia; roles in which her great vocal endowments could be shown to advantage. She auditioned at the Met, but they seemingly were not impressed, which is somewhat curious, as she was already famous. One suspects that something unknown outside the Met may have been in play. It makes no sense otherwise. She did sing for the Manhattan Opera in 1908, but never warmed to the Met, because of their inexplicable attitude, and only sang one season there, in 1911-12. She was in such demand world-wide that the Met was inconsequential in any case. She is reputed to have made a very large amount of money. Unwise associations over time, however, led to a sad end, characterized by poverty. Most scandalous was her victimization at the hands of a dreadful male gold-digger, thirty years her junior, who married her late in her career, and stole most of her money. In spite of such reckless errors of judgment, however, she was by all accounts a lovely person, outgoing and friendly, even to the extent of letting aspiring singers live in her home, at her expense, at least during the good years. Her last days in poverty and sickness anger and bewilder many people even today. It is so wretchedly unfair. One wonders where the charity of fellow performers was. Yes, times were hard in late 30's, but Gigli, to take but one example, managed to raise a huge amount of money during this period by the many charity concerts he gave. Were people wary of her because of her poor judgment in getting involved with such a vile (although doubtless "charming") man as the one who wrecked her life? Why did no one come to her aid at the end when she was so obviously in need? The State of Italy, at least, provided her with an appropriate funeral. It's just all too sad.
Here is the great soprano in "Caro nome":

As the recording shows, the top part of her voice was quite extraordinary. Like virtually all sopranos of her age, she will scoop down into the lower registers, and that sound jolts us somewhat today, when all sopranos simply sing low notes very softly. It is possible that in Tetrazzini's time, when people actually paid more attention to the words, sopranos felt they needed the additional heft in the lower register, so that their voice, and the words they were singing, did not get lost in the orchestra. Another thing that is immediately apparent is the exceptional and easy nature of her trill. I don't think I have ever heard that many trills in "Caro nome" before. But she was just showing off one of her greatest natural endowments. Here is the famous "Ah non giunge," from La Sonnambula:


Certainly an attractive rendition, although one must be honest and point out certain tendencies that are perhaps not up to today's standard: There is sometimes a lack of adequate articulation on the cadenzas that comes dangerously close to a glide, although she was not alone in that during her day. She also sacrifices the lower parts of her voice to the top, which is certainly common (and smart) because that is what people are paying to hear. From an aesthetic point of view, however, she lays herself open to criticism for making the bottom and(especially) middle register of the voice rather open, white, and somewhat blaring. The top is excellent.

Here is a sentimental view of Tetrazzini—the only moving pictures I am aware of—listening to a Caruso recording late in life, and bursting into song along with it. Her girly and giggly abandon at the end is most charming, and just makes one upset yet again that she was treated so badly by others, and did not have the dignified and comfortable retirement she deserved.


Isn't that delightful? She seems a lovely person, and the fact that people speak of her so fondly even today, some 75 years after her death in 1940, is a fitting memorial to a magnificent artist, who literally gave it all.

Saturday, March 21, 2015






It is a great pleasure for me to present another in our series of guest writers. Natalia Bukanova, my  young and  brilliant friend, known to many of you by her Youtube Channel name "younglemeshevist," is especially qualified to write on Sergei Lemeshev. Natalie was among the first to begin to spread his recordings on Youtube, along with those of Antonina Nezhdanova. All lovers of great singing owe her a debt of gratitude for this effort, as these two superb Soviet artists were unknown to many opera lovers in the United States at that time. Natalie is also to be praised for composing this piece in English—with less than a full year’s English in school, and a little work with yours truly, Natalia has attained a level of English language proficiency that can only be called extraordinary; she is now a professional  illustrator of children’s literature and a teacher in the prestigious Moscow Art Institute, one of the most famous such institutions in the world. Natalie has her own website on Lemeshev, which I hasten to point out to you.  It is both exhaustive and erudite!   Here you can take a quick glance at her introductory page and then return back here.


                                             Edmund St. Austell



       First, I would like to thank Professor St. Austell for inviting me to write this piece on my favorite tenor.

      In Russia, Sergei Yakovlevich Lemeshev (1902-1977) is—along with Feodor Chaliapin— perhaps the most beloved opera singer in recent history. He was born into a very poor peasant family, in a small village, and sang from his early childhood. He was always surrounded by good singers, including his parents and other villagers, as peasant Russia was a “singing country” in those days. His father died when Sergei was 10, and after four years in a parish school he started to learn shoemaking, since there was no other chance for the family to escape from poverty. In 1918 he became acquainted with architect and opera lover Nikolai Kvashnin, who, along with the rest of his family, persuaded Sergei to study voice seriously. Those were the years of the Bolshevik revolution and the Civil war, and Lemeshev was required to become a cadet in the Red Army Cavalry School. However, it was actually the Revolution that helped him make his dream of an operatic career come true, since the Bolsheviks gave the poorest peasants and proletarians a preferential right to free education. Sergei was assigned to study at the Moscow Conservatory where, after surviving a rigorous competition, he was accepted. (This determined his political views, for as he said many times, “the Soviets gave me everything".)


His teachers were tenor N. Raisky (a pupil of G. Nuvelli), N. Kardyan, and L. Zvyagina (a leading contralto of the Bolshoi.) In 1926, Lemeshev made his debut as Lensky in K. Stanislavsky’s Opera Studio, and beginning in 1927, he performed at theaters in Sverdlovsk, Harbin (Manchuria) and Tbilisi. In 1931, he became a leading tenor of the Bolshoi, where he sang for the next 34 years, winning great acclaim. His audience grew, along with his fame, and he soon gained a veritable army of fans, called "lemeshevists. His repertoire included the Duke of Mantua, Lensky, Alfredo, Tsar Berendei (from The Snowmaiden), the Indian Guest (Sadko), Faust, Ziebel, Almaviva, The Simpleton (Boris Godunov ), Rodolfo (La Bohème) The Astrologer (The Golden Cockerel), Nadir, Des Greiux (Manon), Gerald (Lakme), Romeo (Gounod’s (Romeo and Juliette), Fra Diavolo, and Werther.


His vocal and artistic qualities, evident to every listener, are beauty of timbre, musicality, effortlessness of vocal production, expressiveness, and very clear diction, qualities perhaps most commonly found in bel canto singers. These qualities can be seen is his 1940 recording of “Parmi veder le Lagrime" (in Russian). I would call attention to the extraordinarily high note at the end, a Db above high C:




An interesting comment on Lemeshev’s singing was made by the Bolshoi tenor A. Orfenov: "He developed a mixed voice of incomparable beauty, which made it possible for him to take the highest notes with such beautiful richness that even specialists could not explain how it was done technically….His high C’s … sounded virile and full…His manner of lowering his larynx a bit on high notes allowed him to perform the parts which we ordinary lyric tenors did not sing, [roles such as] Rodolfo in La Bohème, Levko in May Night, Dubrovsky, Fra Diavolo…”


Lemeshev’s emotionality, acting skills and handsomeness very quickly made him a public idol. Aside from the Duke of Mantua, which was his signature role before the war, he brilliantly performed romantic, melancholy and tragic roles such as Werther, Romeo, and Lensky. Here is his 1938 recording of " Pourquoi me reveiller":




Unfortunately, like every Soviet star in the 1930’s, he had problems securing permission to make recordings of complete operas. Several roles in which he was very successful were not recorded at all. His best early recordings of songs and arias, made on shellac, are now available on Youtube. You may consult my channel—"younglemeshevist," or that of petrof4056.


Lensky finally became his most famous role, which he refined throughout his life. His 1955 recording of Eugene Onegin, with the renowned Galina Vishnevskaya , became quite well known in the West. Here is a very good 1937 recording of Lensky’s aria:





The best years of his operatic career were 1931-1942. He was also an outstanding concert singer and a brilliant performer of folk songs. In 1938, he became the first artist to sing all 100 romances by Tchaikovsky in 5 concerts. Folk songs broadcast on the radio made him a truly “national’ singer. Additionally, the film “A Musical Story,” 1941, in which he played the main role, brought him the Stalin prize and caused Lemeshev-mania all over the USSR. It must be said that his personality was a significant part of his success. He is remembered as a very friendly and cheerful person who was also a congenial colleague. He was also quite a lady's man! Six marriages and numerous affairs focused the attention of his fans on his personal life. Their day-and-night stalking and scuffles with fans of other tenors are legendary.


The beginning of the Great Patriotic War (WWII) was crucial for Lemeshev; during one evacuation he caught a very bad cold which resulted in two attacks of pneumonia, complicated by pleurisy and tuberculosis of the right lung. He was treated with artificial pneumothorax, which is to say an induced therapeutic collapse of one lung. Although singing was forbidden, he in fact continued to sing with one lung from 1942 to 1948, when the other lung was also artificially collapsed and re-inflated. During that period he recorded Lakme, The Snowmaiden, Pearlfishers, and Mozart and Salieri. In addition to health problems, he started to drink heavily after a divorce from his fifth wife, the soprano Irina Maslennikova. By 1953, however, he had overcome his drinking problem and was given the prestigious title "People’s Artist of the USSR." He was also appointed Assistant Manager of the Bolshoi from 1957 to 1959. Toward the end of his career, he mainly gave concerts of Russian classic romances and folk songs, taught in the Moscow conservatory, and performed on the radio. Old fans of his, who stalked him in the 1940's and 50's, are still faithful to him even now, 33 years after his death. They collect his recordings and place flowers on his grave every week.


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Marcelle Bunlet

                                                   Marcelle Bunlet
 Father Cornelius Mattei

Good things often come in small packages, and big voices, which one often associates with opera stereotypes, sometimes come from bodies rather more discrete. Petite, even, in the case of women singers. Here in North America, we might remember the tiny Canadian Teresa Stratas, who had ample voice for such robust rôles as Cio-cio-san and Salomé.

     Perhaps the most extreme example among well-known 20th century opera singers was the  dramatic soprano Marcelle Bunlet, who, like her compatriot Denise Duval ,would always look ¨comme il faut¨ in couturier creations, but whose gleaming, radiant voice with its soaring top tones made her a natural for the rôles in which she excelled: the Brünnhildes, Isolde, Kundry, Elektra, Aïda, Dukas’ Ariane, and so forth. What our friends across the Rhine call a¨hochdramatische Sopran.¨

     Let’s hear her as Senta, and see how she masters the tricky tessitura of the ballad.


Born on October 10, 1900 at Fontenay-le-Comte in the Loire-Vendée region, Bunlet pursued the usual course of musical studies expected of French singers of her times, and was, due to her exceptional vocal endowment and evident musical versatility….she could learn difficult modern and contemporary scores with alacrity, which ability opened important career paths to her, as we shall see….brought to the attention of Philippe Gaubert, renowned flautist, conductor and pedagogue, who was the chief conductor at both the Opéra and the Concerts du Conservatoire for many years, champion of Wagner, Strauss, and of German music in general. It was Gaubert  who arranged for her Paris début, in concert with the Concerts Straram and soon thereafter, with the Concerts du Conservatoire.

That was in late 1926. She sang Leonora’s aria from ¨Fidelio¨ and an aria from Franck’s ¨Rédemption,¨ but when she returned shortly thereafter in what proved to be a long-lasting partnership with that orchestra, she captured the hearts of the Parisian public with Brünhilde’s Immolation from ¨Götterdämmerung.¨

     With the evident success of his protegée and the unanimous acclaim of the critics, Gaubert himself took her to Jacques Rouché, the  ultimillionaire Maecenas and director of the Paris Opéra. Débuts were arranged, and in early 1928, she appeared at both the Opéra Comique and the Opéra, singing ¨Ariane et Barbe-bleu¨ and the Götterdámmerung Brünnhilde, respectively. She had already performed the Dukas under Gaubert’s direction in concert.

     Let’s sample it:


     Shortly after finishing her six-run engagement of the Wagner at the Opéra, she made a triumphant début at the Royal Opera, Brussels, in her first of many Isoldes, to the Tristan of Jacques Urlus, whose last appearances in the rôle those are said to have been. Bunlet, after that time, was set in an international career which took her repeatedly to Belgium and also to Switzerland, Monaco, Germany, Argentina, Italy, Greece and, needless to say in all the important theaters of metropolitan France, with a particularly close relationship with the public and managements at Strasbourg, Bordeaux and Toulouse.

     Marcelle Bunlet established friendships and close relationships with a number of distinguished composers: Milhaud, whose ¨Agamemnon¨ she sang early in her career, Richard Strauss, who recommended her unreservedly to create his ¨Arabella¨ in French-language version and whom he conducted, at Strasbourg, in the title rôle of his Elektra.None of those friendships was more fortunate for her than that of Gustave Samazeuilh,composer, arguably France’s leading Wagnerite and longtime habitué of Bayreuth and friend of the Wagner family. He persuaded them to try Bunlet, who was hired to sing one of the flowermaidens in the 1931 Parsifal revival conducted by Toscanini….as well as to cover Kundry. As it happened, illness obliged the Dutch diva Elizabeth Ohms to cancel her final Kundry and Bunlet saved the day, to the gratitude of the conductor and the Wagners. She was invited back in 1933 as Woglinde, Helmwige and Sieglinde.

Let’s hear Kundry:

During the years of the second World War, Bunlet performed her usual dramatic soprano parts, though somewhat less frequently, in a number of the theaters which were far from combat zones--Lyon, Bordeaux,Toulouse. In Paris, though she did return to sing some Wagner and made a brilliant impression as Valentine in the storied 1936 revival of ¨Les Huguenots¨ starring Georges Thill and André Pernet, she remained under the shadow of Germaine Lubin, who was never reticent to use her influence with M. Rouché or her right, as ¨titulaire¨ to HER rôles, to keep rivals at a distance. Veterans of the period gave this as the reason for Bunlet’s spotty appearances in the capital during the least in the theater.

     In the concert hall and in recital it was another matter, for Bunlet had earned the respect of such composers as Roussel and the younger Olivier Messaien, both of whom composed with her voice in mind and both of whom dedicated works to her. Who nowadays, when hearing lighter lyric sopranos singing Messaien’s ¨Poèmes pour Mi¨ or his ¨Harawi¨ cycle is mindful that these were intended for and premièred by Marcelle Bunlet? Indeed, Messaien was so fond of her singing that he accompanied her in recital as late as the 1950s.

     After the end of hostilities, Marcelle Bunlet settled down in Strasbourg, where from 1945 until 1970, she taught at the local conservatory, appearing in a variety of rôles there at the same time. From 1950 on, she seems to have confined herself to the concert stage. Recordings of three such events are familiar to the author of this posting:

A performance of Albéric Magnard’s ¨Guercoeur¨...actually parts 1 and 3, from the ORTF, 1951,conducted by Tony Aubin. Bunlet, whose recording career was not very extensive, is nothing short of thrilling, her seemingly limitless top tones and brilliant sound being captured with as good fidelity as contemporary technology allowed: a stunning testament. Available some years ago in LP format and also on CD, it is much more than a mere curiosity and worth searching out.

A recital from 1954 from the theater at the Casino of Vichy with Messaien at the piano. Let’s

hear them in Debussy:

Finally, conducted by Gaston Poulet, father of violinist and pedagogue Georges Poulet, let’shear her in M. Samazeuilh’s ¨Le Sommeil de Canope,¨ a work which mixes influences of

Germanic post-romanticism with impressionism recalling the Arnold Schoenberg of Gurrelieder.


To some, the musical equivalent of purple prose, but very much to my taste, oh well.

Marcelle Bunlet died in December, 1991 in Paris, where she had continued to teach after she retired from her Strasbourg professorship. Among her pupils was the soprano Eliane Lublin.

So, a life of service to music with significant impact on contemporary composers...with a fullplate of Wagner Strauss, Gluck, Verdi, and even Bellini...Norma in Strasbourg...besides!

Not bad for a tiny woman from the country.

                                                                      Father Cornelius Mattei