Father Cornelius Mattei
It is a great pleasure for me to
present, in our continuing series
of guest authors, Father Cornelius Mattei,
Monastery of The Holy Cross, East Setauket, New York.
Father is a genuine authority on French art and culture,
most especially classical vocal music. His willingness
to share that vast knowledge with us today is generous
and much appreciated! -Edmund StAustell
When considering great opera singers, to whom this blog is dedicated, we are first captivated by the sound of a voice. What do the recorded voices of, say, Caruso, Chaliapin, Callas share?
They are unmistakable...a personal timbre and manner which puts them beyond the possibility of confusion with any other voice. Such was the case with Denise Scharley (1917-2011), for those who were privileged to experience her performances in the flesh, an unforgettable force of nature. Indeed, for the author of these words, an almost overwhelming encounter across the footlights of the Palais Garnier….the Paris Opera... which, nearly a half-century on, remains a burning memory. So, by way of introduction, let us hear her in this rare audio clip, in the very rôle and with the same tenor, Paul Finel, who sang with her in Carmen that evening.
Born Denise Besse in Picardy, where her father had relocated his young family from their native Angoulême due to wartime employment, she proved robust enough to survive a near
fatal encounter with the Spanish influenza epidemic. Denise grew up in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil and, encouraged by her father, a gifted amateur with a fine bass voice, cultivated
her own singing, originally as a soprano! Accepted into the Paris Conservatoire just before the beginning of the Second World War, she supported herself as a secretary. A student of baritone Roger Bourdin, she was soon singing operettas and musical revues at the Châtelet theater, as well as opera, gaining valuable stage experience: her first Carmen at the Théâtre Montansier in Versailles. In 1942, she graduated with three ¨Premiers Prix,¨ high honors, with a contract for the Opéra Comique. There, on November 29 1942, she made her official début as Geneviève in Pelléas et Mélisande. She was an immediate success. Indeed her career, although limited to Europe, was one of... dare one say.. almost monotonous success. Such parts as Mignon, Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther and Carmen were soon to follow in rapid succession. After the end of hostilities, Scharley…. a stage name adopted from a childhood nickname...newly married to the baritone Jacques Hivert (also a stage name, the family name is Lecaillon), remembered from the original cast and recording of Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias began singing further afield. There were brief appearances in Belgium, England, the Netherlands and Switzerland, but above all in Italy where, besides appearances in Naples and Bologna, she appeared as Carmen in Rome opposite Mario del Monaco in his first-ever Don José. That was in 1947. The following year, she had the first of several contretemps with management over the course of her career and quit on the spot, spending the next four years mostly at the Monnaie in Brussels and in the French theaters from Belgium to North Africa.During that time she bore two children, Sylvie and Gérard, the latter a well-regarded actor and director.
Returning to Paris, she made her début at the Opéra in 1952, remaining there until 1973. Shortly after her return, as Maddalena in Rigoletto, she was entrusted with the rôle of the
eponymous temptress in Saint-Saën’s Samson et Dalila.
Here is ¨Amour, viens aider...¨
Besides Carmen, the rôle she sang most often, Dalila was her other protagonist ¨warhorse,¨ sung opposite all the tenors who appeared in Paris as Samson in the 1950s and 60s: Luccioni
and Verdière, Delmonaco and Chauvet. One notes, however, that Scharley performed an eclectic répertoire, from Rameau and Gluck via Verdi and Wagner (she sang both Erda and the
First Norn in the Knappertsbusch-led first-ever German-language Ring at the Opéra) to Milhaud, Honegger, Sauget, Stravisnky and, most significantly Poulenc: her most unforgettable creation being the rôle of Mme. de Croissy, the Old Prioress, in the Dialogues of the Carmelites in the French-language version, the Italian version having been mounted first at La Scala as the score was the property of the Milan publisher, Ricordi. Most collectors in North America will know her via her electrifying contribution to the original Paris cast recording, 1958. The present author can attest to its heart-stopping impact: sitting in an audience so overcome as to be hardly able to breathe at the end of the scene of her atrocious death, let alone applaud!
During the second half of her forty-one year professional career...she retired in 1983….Scharley sang without let-up, gradually giving up her more glamorous rôles. Whether in Paris or Geneva, her second artistic home, Marseilles, Venice,Toulouse, Bordeaux, Barcelona or Rouen, she was
Indefatigable. Developing a close artistic relationship with Giancarlo Menotti, she created the French language version of The Medium in Marseille, and later at the Opéra Comique, 1968. Excerpts from the television film of that production may be seen on YouTube. Not only did she make Madame Flora her own, but she also appeared in The Consul and Maria Golovine. She also shone as Carmen Gloria in the one-woman opera by Raffaelo de Banfield known in French as Tango pour une femme seule and in Italian as Colloquio col tango. She also appeared in his Alissa and Lord Byron’s Love Letter. Her final Paris appearances were in Daniel-Lesur’s Ondine in 1982. Her farewell to the stage, after more than forty years, was as Dame Marthe in Faust in Toulouse the following year. Let’s hear her once more:
What to say of Scharley’s voice? If I have withheld comment, it is because the reader’s ear may be more adept to receive than I am to describe. The voluminous and almost uniformly
laudatory reviews of her performances in several languages by most of the prominent music critics in Europe...she never crossed the Atlantic, alas…. ever praise the unique, smoky timbre and homogeneity of that dramatic mezzo-soprano voice impinged upon contralto depths which make such as the descent to the final low A of the Samson and Delilah aria appended here so memorable. What recordings cannot convey was her physical, kick-to-the-solar-plexus stage
persona, compounding the impact of that hard-hitting voice...with her concentrated, restrained movements, blazing green eyes and strong features….when she walked onstage all eyes were on her. When she opened her mouth to sing, she ¨sucked up¨ all the oxygen in the theater.
At seventeen years of age, I could not sleep the night of that first Carmen. It was as if she had thrown that flower to me. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one!
Father Cornelius Mattei
Father Cornelius Mattei