[I am very pleased today to present some additional comment from Father Cornelius Mattei, whose knowledge of French opera and opera singers is simply extraordinary, far beyond what I have or could ever hope to have. Any comments from Father end with (FC). Edmund]
Agustarello Affré (1858-1931) was a French operatic tenor who possessed a powerful and ringing voice, owing to which he was nicknamed the "French Tamagno" after the great Italian tenor. He was one of the outstanding operatic tenors in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. He spent the last years of his career singing and directing operas in the United States, most particularly in New Orleans. After World War I, he lived in retirement in France.
Born in Saint-Chinian, Affré was trained at the Conservatoire de Toulouse and the Conservatoire de Paris. He studied singing with Edmond Duvernoy and Pierre Gailhard. After singing in theatres in the French provinces, he made his debut in Paris at the Opéra in 1890 as Edgardo in Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor opposite Nellie Melba in the title role, who was also making her debut . He remained a leading tenor at the Opéra for the next 20 years, portraying such roles as Arnold in William Tell, Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, Eléazar in La Juive, Fernando in La favorita, Jean de Leyde in Le prophète, Rhadames in Aida, Raoul de Nangis in Les Huguenots, Renaud in Gluck's Armide, Vasco da Gama in L'Africaine, and the title roles in Lohengrin and Sigurd. He created the role of the Touranien prisoner in the world premiere of Jules Massenet's Le Mage in 1891.
It seems that Affré is everywhere described as a “heroic” or “dramatic” tenor. Such categorizations, however, in 1908 or 1910, have little or no meaning. Affré’s world was basically that of bel canto. Terms such as “dramatic ” just as often refer to acting style, or to the various excesses of verismo.
Here is “Ah, Parais, “ from Massenet’s Le Mage:
OK. Let’s talk terminology here. Is that a dramatic tenor? A heroic tenor? Perhaps. What CAN be said is that Affré had a strong tenor voice, very well trained, with a wide range. Simply, he knew what he was doing, and he was an excellent musician and stylist. He did NOT scream and shout. The French have always prized elegance and precision above almost all else. Affré was no exception. Here is something eye-opening. Manrico is a stellar example of a dramatic tenor role. One thinks immediately of Corelli or Giacomini. Let’s see how a famous French tenor called “dramatic” handles “Ah si ben mio” 111 years ago. I particularly call your attention to the trills, something you are not likely to hear today, at least not at this spot in the libretto. Remember, this is the age of bel canto:
I would not call that a dramatic tenor, at least not by contemporary standards. Maybe “spinto.” I’ll give you that. One thing is for sure, and that is that this is about as fine an example of classy singing as you are likely ever to hear in Trovatore! Here is Father Cornelius’ observation:
“Hey, somebody had to preserve those trills....and the French tenors seem to have been among the keepers thereof…Dalmorès, for example. As in most of his recordings, Affré shows that a big voice need not sacrifice a finely sculpted sostenuto line(FC)
Here is another role commonly sung by dramatic tenors:
“WOW....as always with Affre, firm tone, spot-on intonation in consequence, freed by his technical mastery, able to express the text very specifically...here Eleazar's exaltation, despite his fears, is plainly evident and contagious....not forgetting the pellucid enunciation... no need for supertitles...well, if you understand French. Not always apparent in recordings...his daughter's recollections about the difficulties inherent in recording this big, vibrant voice are instructive....the top tones shone like a big diamond, hovering over the stage and the auditorium. Lucky New Orléans, where he sang, and even directed the old French Opera House before it burned to the ground. Merci, cher maître.” (FC)
I am no master compared to you, FatherJ but I appreciate your comments, which are excellent..
And now, here is something from Romeo and Juliet, a more clearly lyric repertoire, at which Affré excelled equally. This is truly beautiful:
Finally, a few words need to be said about the very early date of some of Affré’s recordings, and also about his final days. He was something of a recording pioneer, and performed on some of the earliest opera recordings, including 4-minute cylinders made in Paris.
Some of his earliest recordings highlight excerpts from the roles of Don José in Carmen (1911) and, as we just heard, of Roméo in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (1913).
In 1911, Affré moved to the United States, where he was heard in operas in New Orleans, San Francisco, and in Havana. He became director of the French Opera House in New Orleans in 1913 when it came under the ownership of Tulane University,and remained there until 1915. He died in Cagnes-sur-Mer in 1931 at the age of 73 is buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
This was a truly great tenor from long ago, in whom the best traditions of the distant past, both vocal and dramatic, were permitted to survive into the modern period. I truly believe that it will not be long before the era of verismo opera will be seen to have been more short-lived than the preceding era of bel canto , signs of which are now beginning to re-emerge in the unexpected revival of 18th century opera.
Fr. Cornelius Mattei