Plançon's teachers were the famous tenor Gilbert Duprez and Giovanni Sbriglia, who also numbered among his students the de Reszke brothers, Jean and Édouward. His debut was in 1877, in Lyon, in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots. His rise was quite rapid, and in short order he was singing in Paris, both at the Théâtre de la Gaîté Lyrique (1880) and the Paris Opera, where his debut (1883) was Faust, an opera that was to become one of his most frequently performed, as Mephistopheles quicklybecame a signature role for him. He would spend 10 years at the Paris Opera, where he participated in several premieres, including Le Cid, and Saint-Saëns's Ascanio. He also sang at Covent Garden, to general acclaim, during the early 1890's. He continued to add new roles to his repertoire, including Massenet's La Navarraise, Lalo's Le roi d'Ys, and Massenet's Hérodiade. Plançon did not neglect the standard repertoire, and during the peak of his career he could be seen in Aida, Fidelio, Die Meistersinger, Mefistofele, The Damnation of Faust, and Martha. He only avoided those roles that required anything approaching roughness or—especially—buffoonery, as he was, above all else, debonair and elegant—the ultimate bel canto singer, with extraordinary vocal and aesthetic refinements at his command, including a perfect trill, and a remarkable ability to sing fioratura and rapid cadenzas. These abilities and refinements are almost never seen in basses. Plançon's Metropolitan Opera debut was 1893, in Gounod's Philémon and Baucis. He sang at the Met until 1908, in over 600 performances. He retired from the stage in 1908 and returned to Paris, where he gave lessons. He died at age 63, in 1914.
The first recording I have chosen is a truly extraordinary record of bel canto bass singing. It shows the essential Plançon gifts: Absolutely immaculate French, with every syllable perfectly clearly pronounced; smooth and elegant vocalism, supporting a musically perfect style, and, from the middle of the recording to the end, what I believe are unique examples of rapid cadenzas and fioratura executed by a bass. If you do not know Plançon, and this is the first example of his singing you have heard, keep an open mind! Those among us who have been raised in the verismo era of giant-voiced, roof-shaking Russian basses are in for a surprise at this example of an elegant French bel canto artist singing 108 years ago! :
Now isn't that something! You can see, right away, why he is the darling of bel canto lovers. This is one of the important examples of 19th century bel canto singing, recorded in 1904, when Plançon would have been 53 years old. His was not a huge or even large voice, yet he could be heard perfectly well (as most bel canto artists could be) even in large theaters such as the Met, which even back then was a large house. It isn't size that accounts for carrying power, it is, and always has been, focus. And of that he had enough.
This next recording is a gem, and my own personal favorite of Plançon's recorded arias. It is not easy to think of this voice as a Verdi bass, and yet his performance of this aria from Verdi's Don Carlos is so good, and so sensitively done, that it is absolutely heart-rending. Don Carlos, known in Italian as Don Carlo, was originally written in French, and Verdi intended it to be a big 5-act French opera. This aria, which we know today from the later Italian version as "Ella giammai m'amò," ("She never loved me") has to be one of the saddest things ever written, and when it is sung by a consummate artist like Plançon, as opposed to being sung in the many window-shattering renditions by huge basses, one actually feels the excruciating painfulness of the lyrics:
Not much I can add to that! Sigh..................
Finally, a non-operatic selection. The season now being fairly close to hand, here is his delicate and beautiful rendition of O Holy Night:
Pol Plançon, clearly one of a kind!