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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Edmond Clément, The Quintessence of Elegance

Edmond Clément was born in Paris in 1867.  As a young man, Clément entered the Conservatoire de Paris, where it quickly became apparent that he was possessed of a very beautiful high lyric tenor voice.  At the relatively young age of 22, Clément made his stage debut, as did so many artists, at the Opéra Comique, in Massenet’s Mireille.  He very quickly began to earn a reputation as a superbly elegant and polished singer.  He remained a leading tenor at the Opéra Comique for the next twenty years, until 1909.

During this crucially important period, Clément perfected what was going to become the core of his essential repertoire, including Ottavio, Roméo, Werther, Hoffmann, Almaviva, Tamino,and, perhaps most importantly, des Grieux.  Also, given the era in which he sang, he had the opportunity to take part in première performances, including Falstaff, Butterfly and Saint-Saëns’ Hèléne.

By this time, when Clément was in his early 40’s, he began to spread his wings, as it were, and appear outside Paris.  While today we assume that it is natural to move abroad as opportunities present themselves, this was not always the case in the early years of the 20th century.  For one thing, travel was expensive and difficult then, and there is nothing like a transatlantic trip by steamer to wear one out.  Not everyone is constituted to be able to tolerate long trips by boat and rail.  It was common enough for artists who lived in Paris to have their entire careers and never leave Paris, even then considered by many, if not most, to be the world’s greatest city.

However, for Clément it was off to Madrid, Monte Carlo and Brussels.  He did not sing at Covent Garden, but he did manage the big transatlantic trip to New York, to perform in the 1909-10 season at the Metropolitan Opera. This was, however, the heyday of Enrico Caruso, the star tenor of the Met’s roster, and verismo singers such as Enrico Caruso were all the rage at the time, and were basically polar opposites to elegant bel canto tenors such as Edmond Clément.  Clément and others certainly had their audience also, but it was not, shall we say, that of the Italophile Met and its New York Italian immigrant fan base.

He found a very much more appreciative audience in Boston, at the Boston Opera House, where his extremely elegant and polished singing, coupled with his equally refined stage presence,  were greatly applauded. He was a natural Roméo, and a good Don José.  It should be mentioned at this point that  Clément was a superb musician, and a very handsome man, with considerable acting skills.

The year following his Boston triumph saw the outbreak of WWI and Clément, a patriotic Frenchman,  returned to his homeland and joined the Army.  While he did survive, he was  wounded, and was never quite the same after the war.  While he did sing a little, it was nonetheless a period of decline.  He gave a recital at age sixty and died in 1927,the following year, in Nice.  He is remembered, even today, thanks to his records, as one of the most precious and elegant of tenors, the very exemplar of French elegance.

To begin, here is Clément in what may be his signature role, des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon:


Talk about elegance!  That is certainly one of the finest recordings of “Le Rêve” to be found.  Clément scores at every important point in the aria: style, legato, precise enunciation, and simplicity, something often overlooked, which should not be, because it is the bed-rock foundation of elegance!  It is too easy to be excessive, but the true test of an artist’s ability to demonstrate with perfection the intentions of the author is to adhere to a clean, precise simplicity, and at this Clément excels.

Here is a piece that shows an uncommon breath control and command of legato singing, the tenor aria from Boieldieu’s La Dame Blanche, “Viens, gentile dame:

If we can imagine a very long string, or piece of thread, wrapped into a ball, unwinding from the first note of the aria to the last, we have a very reasonable visual image of the legato line extending from the beginning to the end of the aria.  It reminds me a bit of McCormack, but even finer.  This is an elegance that can only be called remarkable.

Finally, here is a song, and while it is not an operatic aria, it is what I always refer to as the oldest continually sung love song of them all, Martini’s “Plaisir d’amour.” Written in 1780 by Jean Paul E. Martini, “Plaisir d'amour” is a very good candidate for being the greatest love song ever written. It has been sung constantly from the moment of its creation until the present day, which is now over 230 years.  It has been sung by folk singers, great opera singers, pop singers, including Elvis Presley, and countless thousands of amateurs.  The song is an absolute classic of beauty, elegance, structural perfection, and essential text: “I loved her, she said she loved me, but she ran off with someone else, now I'm miserable.  The joy of love lasts only a minute, its pain is life-long.”  It doesn't get much more basic than that.  In a word, it is a song tailor-made for Edmond Clément: