René Bianco: Baritone and Verdian
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!
The life and career of this outstanding dramatic baritone may be outlined briefly: He was born in 1908, in the stunningly beautiful city of Constantine, French Algeria. He made his début, as a bass, at Bône in 1934, spending the first decade of his career mainly in the French theaters of North Africa, with a few excursions to the theaters of the ̈Midi. ̈
After the Second World War, he sought brighter pastures, joining the rosters of the national theaters in Paris in 1948, putting in his 20
years and retiring in 1968 from the life of a singing civil servant. He continued to sing in theaters in the French provinces, appearing in the same demanding rôles until the 1980s and then teaching singing until the 1990s. He passed away in early 2008, five months short of his 100th birthday, in the Lyon suburb to which he had retired, Charbonnières-les Bains. He also sang abroad, both in the major Belgian French theaters —Brussels, Liège and Namur—as well as in the cities of Geneva, Florence, Bologna, Lisbon and Budapest.
Let’s hear him in a rôle which he was still performing in his mid-sixties. Here is Iago’s “Credo:”
I call your attention to the authority, power, crisp enunciation and grasp of the venomous nature of this reptilian personage. Bianco entertains no pretense to sounding pleasant. What you hear is what you get.
Based on rich, full lower and middle registers, Bianco’s voice rose to bell-like, full top tones--his A on the Brindisi of the same work was sounded, not merely suggested. His voice was described by one critic as an ̈ouragan vocal-- a vocal hurricane. The voice gave the impression, in the theater, of coming at the listener from no particular direction rather, it enfolded one. It also seemed to have infinite reserves of power. When he hummed in a small space, the sound “tickled “ everything. Several of those who heard him as Rigoletto in his farewell performances at the Opéra Comique remarked that he was wonderful, but that he hurt their ears in that relatively small space.
If we emphasize Verdi, .Rigoletto was his calling-card, a most significant composer in his career. Bianco, to be sure, performed a broad repertoire from Rameau (Huascar in Les Indes galantes) to Hindemith (Mathis der Maler) and Milhaud. He sang, besides the standard French
works associated with his vocal type, Wagner and Puccini, being particularly well-received as Kurwenal, Telramund and Scarpia. His biggest success in Wagner was the Flying Dutchman, which he first sang in the early 50’s and, later, in a new production in 1963, if memory serves.
But let’s continue with Verdi. Here is “Le voilà C’est l’Enfant” from Don Carlos: [Please remember that the French Don Carlos which you will hear came first; the Italian Don Carlo, which you may be more used to hearing—and in Italian- came later.]
Here, Bianco shows another “face. ̈ How else to put it? Many other baritones have been as sympathetic as Posa, but here, abetted by an excellent Alain Vanzo and backed by aware, sensitive, dramatic conducting from the ever-memorable maestro Charles Bruck, Posa’s love for his friend...(a high-maintenance, difficult sort, one might add )is evident in his plangent timbre and intense solicitude. This is rare vocal acting of unusual power.
Bianco’s long career, over 40 years, was ensured by a robust constitution and constant motion. Truth in advertising: the present author studied with Bianco and has very fond memories of a generous soul with a cheerful, even temperament. His teaching, based on slow careful vocalises, emphasized “aperto ma coperto “ from the middle register up to the high tones. He was not one of those who leaves the pupil voiceless after an hour.
Did his healthy lifestyle and the care he took in warming up pay off for him? Doubtless, for when I knew him in his mid-sixties, he went to Lille, Valenciennes and St. Etienne, singing Athanaël, William Tell and Iago, respectively, rôles usually left behind by that stage of a singer’s career. He continued to sing in other cities, particularly Lyon where, as at St. Etienne nearby, he had quite a fan base. There, where he retired, he died in January 2008. Let’s hear him one more time in another duet, this time from the soundtrack of the telecast of a débutante at the Paris Opéra and in Italian, as a fierce, manipulative Amonasro. Here is the Nile scene duet with Tebaldi: