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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Léopold Simoneau: The Art of Elegant Lyricism

Léopold Simoneau was born in St. Flavien, Québec. After beginning studies in Québec City and Montreal, he went to New York to study with the well-known American tenor and teacher Paul Althouse. His first important debut was in 1949 at the Opéra Comique in Paris, in Gounod's Mireille. His lovely, elegant singing was an instant hit with the French, and in the next two years he went on to debuts at the Paris Opera, Glyndebourne, Aix-en-Provence, Edinburgh, Salzburg, Vienna and Milan. He was quickly establishing a reputation not only as a brilliant Mozartean tenor, but as a near-perfect exponent of the elegant style of older opera in general, including Gluck's Orfeo, Delibes' Lakmé, and Rameau's Les Indes galantes. In the US, he sang at the Chicago Lyric from 1954 to 1961, and one season at the Met, as don Ottavio, in the 1960's. New York was not a fertile artistic field for elegant tenor singing in the Franch style at that time, being heavily invested in Italian verismo opera. Simoneau's superb lyric craftsmanship won him many honors in Canada, and he was, during his entire career, greatly respected for his musicianship and sense of high style.

His sense of style and finely tuned singing technique is something easily appreciated from hearing it, as opposed to someone talking about it! Here is the lovely "Un'aura amorosa," from Mozart's Così Fan Tutte:

Isn't that lovely! The legato line is perfect, and the smoothness of his singing is truly astonishing. This little aria is much trickier artistically that it might seem. The back and forth movement over the passagio can be treacherous, and it is not at all easy to maintain a smooth legato in the process. This is exemplary Mozart singing, and in fact Simoneau was praised throughout his career as one of the very greatest of Mozart singers.

It was not only in Mozart, of course, that he excelled. As a French-speaking tenor, the transition to operas such as Bizet's Pearl Fishers was natural. Here is the famous and beautiful aria "Je crois entendre encore:"

That is supremely beautiful, and vocally matches even the most famous tenors of all time (and I think every professional tenor has recorded it!) and is, I must say, far more convincing stylistically and linguistically that the versions of many well-known tenors. Simoneau is squarely within his favored repertoire!

Finally, an unusual piece. The music itself is very well known (Orpheus' heart-breakingly beautiful "che farò senza Euridice") but it is almost always sung by a contralto or mezzo-soprano. In France, however the piece was mounted as a French 18th-century style opera, with Orpheus sung by a tenor. This may sound a bit unusual to those who have heard only the contralto version, because dramatically the tenor best represents the role and the music as a male heart-broken lover who has lost his beloved, and the dramatic inflections which Simoneau makes place the piece slightly outside the more concert-like lilting, legato versions of female singers. I think it's a small matter, because the piece gains much in the (appropriate, I think) drama of its presentation. See what you think:

I find this very moving, and I think it works perfectly well.

Simoneau's career was one of very high musical and stylistic quality , and his recordings still bear eloquent testimony to that fact!


JD Hobbes said...

Lovely selections and a fine voice. I have always been fond of the "Pearl Fishers" especially. It seems that native speakers of the Romance languages have quite an advantage in song. Simoneau has a near perfect voice for French song and opera. It has always appeared to me that non-French singers trying to sing in French will overdo it, and they often slip into nasality. The French singers avoid this—Thill certainly did, and Simoneau has the same clarity and ease, with no nasality whatsoever. And of course, elegance, as you point out, and which sophisticated French audiences so much adore!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Mr. Hobbes. Good comment, as always! And you are of course right. Many Americans in particular overdo it in French, especially on unstressed "e" vowels, which run to an "uh." While in conversation they do go in that direction, in opera they are remarkably more pure, and even a bit more like the Italian pronunciation. I always noticed that in the case of Thill, and I notice it also here, perhaps to a lesser extent. Alagna, to take another example, while French is his native language, always moves his enunciation in the direction of an international operatic stadard, a kind of linguistic neutrality which, as Gioacchino Fiurezi Maragioglio, a regular contributor to this blog, recently pointed out to me. Thanks again for your comment.

G. Fiurezi Maragioglio said...

Thank you for a wonderful article Edmund. It is so sad, this native style of French singing is GONE.

Also, it is an important point when you say he was taught by Paul Althouse: also Richard Tucker's teacher. Now this is quite interesting from a technical view, because it shows that the same real technique, the Italian head-voiced method, is the solid building-base for the intricacy and nuance for the French style.

A propos language and style, I do not know a way to judge French, but in Italian, it stands out, for example, in Radamès ACT III "sacerdote, io resto a te."

saceRdote, io Resto a te — the correct Italian "r" sound is preserved, with the sort of trill, you can see in all those "local" Italian singers, even ones like Martinelli and Albanese who sang for many years in America. By contrast today even some Italians do not do this "r" in true Italian way.

A suggestion? Do you have an article about Birgit Nilsson? She is an excellent candidate.

Thank you again for this fine article of the French style Edmund. I say again, Edmund you do a big service, a great service to opera and fine art, with your writing. Many thanks.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend, for a first rate comment, and please permit me to publicly state my appreciation for all that I have learned from you about the great art of Italian singing. It is one of the cultural jewels of Italian civilization, admired and loved--and imitated!--throughout the world!

Gerhard Santos said...

MOLTO BELLO!!! Thank you my Friend for sharing this Valuable Biographical information of Great French-Canadian lyric tenor LEOPOLD SIMONEAU(1916-2006).

Daniel James Shigo said...

Beautiful singing, beautiful voice. Thank you for this post.

His voice reminds me of Matthew Polenzani in some ways. He and Simoneau, if should be noted, derive their technique from the Garcia School: Polenzani with Margaret Harshaw, and Simoneau with Althouse who was a student of Stockhausen- both teachers being musical descendants of the García's.

Both keep what was thought of as the /a/ position for all vowels.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for another superb article, Edmund. Simoneau is certainly one of the finest lyric tenors in the postwar period. I came to know him through his Don Ottavio in the 1956 Salzburg performance of Don Giovanni conducted by Mitropoulos. His "Dalla sua pace" rightly brought down the house and for me this rendition remain unrivalled to this day.

Here's the YouTube link to the said live recording:


Edmund St. Austell said...

Good comment! Thank you very much! Yes, I think it could be argued that the singing school described in Manuel Garcia's "L'art du Chant" has never been improved upon. It seems strange to me that it is not the standard method of teaching singing today. All evidence pioints to the fact that it is the single best singing method ever devised. Thanks again.

Edmund St. Austell said...

For Tim: Thank you very much, Tim. I agree with you! his Ottavio was nonpareil! Thanks for the link!

JING said...

I continue to be humbled, Edmund, by your capacity to introduce (for me at least) singers that I have had so little exposure to. And what a stunning wealth of them there seems to be! The introduction and selections from Simoneau were no exception. Quite lovely and wonderful for all the reasons that you and your well-versed contributors have noted. From me, briefly: I have always adored "un 'aura amosa" and indeed it is not so easy to sing. When I first listened to Simoneau, I thought for an instant that you might have overstated his redition a little. That is, until I started comparing him to some of the other neighboring YouTube posts of the same aria. That sealed the deal. If anyone wants to experience a shock, have a listen to Pavarotti singing it. So you converted me. I also tried listening to Simoneau's "Il mio tesoro". His tempo is quite slow, and for me dragged. I think I am very attached to the excitement of the faster-paced versions. I also sensed that his voice, lovely as it is, did not seem to be particularly agile. Is this an aspect of the French style he represents? The "Che faro" was wonderfully done. I find the performance history of Orfeu in Gluck's opera very interesting - altos, tenors, countertenors. (Most recently David Daniels at the Met). But as you so often say, the beauty of the music really does transcend voice type (whatever that really is!) Thanks again for broadening my horizons!

Edmund St. Austell said...

And thank YOU, my friend, for another excellent comment! I think you may well be right about the flexibility. That is another kind of tenor, probably. Simoneau has opted for the legato line that is always so pleasing to listen to, as above the pyrotechnics that are often so astonishing. As Couperin once said about extreme ornamentation in harpsichord playing, "I would rather be pleased than surprised." I think it is toward this kind of understated French elegance that Simoneau tended. Thanks again for a fine comment!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article; he was a brilliant tenor. I love this style very much; to me such intelligence, musicianship and flexibility of the voice is what singing is about) Besides, Simoneau had beautiful timbre. I totally agree that his version of ‘Je crois entendre encore’ can be compared to those of the greatest tenors like Gigli. All three recordings are excellent, and he was very good and convincing as Orpheus. In Russia the role of Orpheus sometimes was performed by famous tenors (Sobinov in 1911, and Kozlovsky later). Sobinov looked exactly like Orpheus, and the production was beautiful. I found a couple of photos of Sobinov and sets:


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, my dear friend. You perfectly understand the appeal of Simoneau's art! I agree with all you say. I looked at the first photo you sent of Sobinov, and he does look Orpheus, although at first I thought it was an old picture of Antonina Nezhdanova:-)

I had trouble accessing the 2nd photo. It brings up a painting. Could you check that one for us please?

Thanks again!

The Balch said...

Thank you, Mr. St. Austell, for taking the time to pay tribute to an artist who grows dearer to me by the day. I'm somewhat ashamed to say that I discovered him quite by accident: my first encounter with "En fermant les yeux" was a 1911 recording by Edmond Clément, and it was so lovely that I felt compelled to hear other interpretations. I saw a clip of Villazón singing it, and really liked it; I heard the Legay/de los Ángeles recording, and loved it; and finally I found Simoneau's studio version.

I went in thinking, "Could such a beautiful piece of music really get any better?" I was actually prepared to be disappointed, but In less than three minutes, everything I thought I knew about singing had been turned on its head. I can honestly say that it is the tenderest and most beautiful thing I have ever heard.

Other singers have since inspired, excited, and astounded me, but Simoneau is one of a very few whose performances have shown me what it means to be human. Bless you for sharing his work with all of us.

Edmund St. Austell said...

A very touching testimony to a great artist! Thank you! And, by the way, you write beautifully!

Verdiwagnerite said...

I agree with Jing, Edmund! I am continually amazed at the wonderful singers you are introducing to me.
Simoneau has great control of his legato and has almost a perfect voice for singing in the French language and for Mozart. I didn't think I would hear another voice on a par with Wunderlich, but I have! And thank you for the Orfeo aria. I've never heard it sung in French before.

Thank you.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Why, thank you very much, Kate. What a lovely comment. I'll tell you though, I have learned so much more from others than I am able to provide on my own. I thought I had a pretty good grip on opera, then I started reading absorbing all the comments I've read over the last three years! I have lerned so much! Thanks again.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Hmm..I still think Simoneau's more of a Mozart singer than a French tenor in the old tradition..I can't deny that his voice is beautiful but the beauty that comes with it is a simple one..Not very dramatic, not very sweet, not very elegant, just beautiful alone. He's quite different from the French tenors of the old school, even the last ones, Legay and Vanzo, don't you think so? Their voices were not as beautiful but they had elegance and charm.

Perhaps that's the reason why Simoneau has such an appeal..After listening to so many years of formidably overwhelming powerhouse tenors and tenorinos who blast a string of high notes one after the other, throwing high Cs and Ds all over the place, one wants something simple for a change, which he provides.

Anyway, this is a transcript of two interviews with Simoneau and his wife which I found on the Net:
(maybe it might enhance the content already in the article, it not only reinforces but it also offers some perspectives or insights from the singer himself about his artistry)

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment. It is well thought out and you make good points. And I would agree that the lightness, sweetness and elegance are major appeals. There can be some drama, however, even in a light voice. I hear evidence of it, certainly, in the Orpheus. But that to a large degree is simply a matter of taste, which will always vary. The article with the interviews you gave the address for is interesting and insightful. It's always nice to hear artists talk about their craft. I recommend it to interested readers. Thank you, Darren!

Anonymous said...

да, наверно так и есть

wheatgerm said...

never heard of him maybe ill give him a whirl

The Balch said...

For what it's worth, Mr. St. Austell, I don't think Francophone male singers get a fair shake here in the States. I would love to see more discussions of French tenors, baritones, and basses here on GOS. Henri Legay, Edmond Clement, Alain Vanzo, Gérard Souzay...the list could go on forever, I'm sure. I just discovered a lovely recording of Legay singing "Vainement ma bien-aimée;" let's hope this SOPA/PIPA business doesn't pan out. Without Youtube, I'm not sure I would know even what little about good singing that I do.

Edmund St. Austell said...

I tend to agree! I'll try to do what I can, in my little way, to keep the French end up on Great Opera Singers! Thanks for the comment--an interesting observation.

The Balch said...

Now that I'm back home and back online, I thought I would share the link to the Legay performance I mentioned in case you or any of your other readers were interested. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

I was on the fence about Legay for a while, but this recording, along with an excerpt from Le Postillon de Longumeau, made me a serious fan. Why don't North American companies stage these charming French works anymore? Maybe charm shouldn't be enough, but I guess I'm a sentimental person with simple tastes.

Edmund St. Austell said...

I think "refined tase" is the phrase you a looking for:-) Thank you for the link; I will look at it the first chance I get today. I urge others to also check it out.

Gerhard Santos said...

Hello Sir Edmund! Keep up the fantastic work, I think it is really interesting and has lots of good info. Thanks for sharing and *GOD BLESS*

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