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Saturday, April 4, 2015



                                                FATHER CORNELIUS MATTEI

One raw, overcast Saturday morning long ago, I took the Métro from my student digs on the southern, to the northern edge of Paris and the flea market just past the Porte de Clignancourt to go record hunting, as was my wont. There, amid bins helpfully sorted by category, I came across an LP with a startling cover photograph of the bassechantante André Pernet. I had a firsthand report of his storied career from two habitués of the opera who spoke of him in hushed, awed tones, but was not ready for the treasure which those grooves were to unlock for my ears. Here were characters, fairly leaping from the speakers; a voice of  unique quality, as the greatest of singers possess; an opalescent, chameleon-like quality in which each phrase, line, word and, even, syllable was not only chiseled with rare precision, but also with distilled meaning and insight while respecting the composer and dramatic intent; able to turn ¨on a dime¨ and shift tone, mood and significance instantaneously. How often do we experience this from a nominally cold mechanical process? What does it take to produce and, in this listener, evoke vivid impressions for nearly a half century? Whatever it takes, André Pernet had it. His early life and career may be surveyed quickly.

Born January 8, 1894 in the historic town of Rambervilliers in the Vosges region of southeastern Lorraine, just inside the part of that province left to France after the débacle of 1870, André Pernet passed an uneventful childhood and adolescence. A good student, he had just finished his secondary studies and was preparing to study law when he was called to the colors at the beginning of the Great War in 1914. He rose quickly through the ranks, and by the end of the war in 1918 had become an officer.

       Immediately upon demobilization, Pernet applied himself to his studies and obtained his law degree, while developing his evidently fine voice by studying with the distinguished bass André Gresse, who had retired to become an equally famous voice teacher at the Paris Conservatoire. As far as can be determined, Pernet never practiced law, because, after two years of study and the year after his first marriage, to Mlle. Elizabeth Almeyer of Metz, he made his operatic début at Nice as Vitellius, the second bass rôle in Massenet’s ¨Hérodiade.¨ For seven years he crisscrossed France singing in small and medium-sized Theaters (appearances in Cannes, Toulouse, Deauville, Geneva and Strasbourg have been verified) in a wide variety of rôles in operas many of which by then maintained a tenuous foothold in the répertoires of the larger, more fashionable theaters. It would be instructive to introduce him in a work which he sang during that phase, only, of his career. Here is Jupiter’s lullaby from Gounod’s pastoral comedy ¨Philémon et Baucis.¨  

What tenderness, sweetness of tone and sure melding of voice and text! The voice is well extended over nearly two and one-half octaves. The King of the Gods sends the elderly couple to sleep, and we the listeners, through the magic of this interpretation--there is no other word for it --are similarly enfolded in a peerless example of extraordinary voice-painting allied to what was described by his contemporary critics as a silken tone.

      Pernet would soon famously learn how to evolve the ¨rocaileux¨ quality, in this context--a coruscating, kaleidoscopic tone which he used with surgical precision to create an unforgettable gallery of characters.   On July 7, 1928, shortly after a divorce and second marriage, to Thérèse Pauly, Pernet took the decisive step in his career, making his début at the Paris Opéra as Mephistopheles in Gounod’s ¨Faust.¨  So successful was this début that within his first 18 months at the Opéra, he had sung Wotan in Die Walküre, the title rôle in Boris Godunov, Athanaël in Thaïs, the Sultan of Khaïtan in Rabaud’s Marouf, and created two rôles in world premières of works which proved ephemeral. He appeared, besides, in two shorter rôles which benefit from a strong voice and personality: the King in Aïda and Gessler in Guillaume Tell, the latter with the legendary Irishman John O’Sullivan, as Arnold, Journet in the title rôle and Beaujon as Mathilde. The other artists are mentioned to emphasize that in those days the Opéra had on retainer quite a stable of voices; voices which, as one critic of those times said, stood as adamant, not to be overcome by 100 musicians in the pit: Lubin, Journet, Franz, Lapeyrette…..and then quickly adds that the young Pernet stood out from that stable of voices. His was not of their size, but his interpretations were marked by their unflinching fidelity to the intentions of composer and librettist: he cut precisely to the quick of his characters, imposing himself, dominating the stage and becoming a favorite of the public.

Boris became a winning ticket for Pernet throughout his career, and it proved to be his finale on stage, as we shall see. He presents a suffering Tsar, inspiring horror, eliciting pity.

       In the spring of 1930, shortly after he appeared for the first time as St. Bris in ¨Les Huguenots,¨again with O’Sullivan, he had a disagreement about his fees with management at the Opéra and did not appear for nearly one year, returning in March of 1931 as King Marke in Tristan und Isolde, with Lubin. He would add Gurnemanz in Parsifal to his Wagner rôles soon thereafter,as well as Mephistopheles in Berlioz’ Damnation de Faust. In those days, it should be recalled that the Opéra and Opéra Comique, a scant 500 meters apart, though out of sight of one another, were not a consolidated entity but competed in répertoire and for the services of singers. In the early 1930s Pernet added to his rôles at the Opéra those such as Basilio in Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia and Tonio in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, works usually associated with the smaller house.  Here is a superb “Prologue” from Pagliacci:

 With what insouciance Tonio steps through the curtain, as if stumbling by mistake into the auditorium and begging our pardon, then building the whole to a climax….as high A flat, but the whole whipped gradually into a state of rare exaltation in the dignity of common humanity with all its suffering.  Oh, and what of the smaller theater? While he was technically not on the roster at the Opéra during most of the 1930/31 season, Pernet betook himself down the street to the Place Boeildieu, making his début in the title rôle of Massenet’s ¨Don Quichotte¨ on January 19, 1931. He appeared, thus, concurrently, at both theaters, which again was almost unheard of before 1939. Although Pernet was a natural as the knight of the sorrowful countenance, it was a role which he undertook only sporadically through the remainder of his career. Others were there before him and were great audience favorites in that theater, such as VanniMarcoux.   First, however, here is Pernet as the chevalier errant:

A role more typical than the Don, for Pernet, was that of Ourrias in the famous revival, conducted by Reynaldo Hahn, of an ¨original¨ version of Gounod’s Mireille. With the able assistance of Henri Büsser, the tragic ending was reinstated, five acts consolidated into three, the extraneous valse, ¨O legère hirondelle¨ excised and the Air de la Crau reinstated, in essence what has become the standard version since then. Here is Pernet as the villainous bullherder of the Camargue:  

Reynaldo Hahn was responsible for one of Pernet’s greatest successes in a new opera, that being the première of his ¨Le Marchand de Venise,¨[Merchant of Venice] March 25, 1935, alongside Fanny Heldy as Portia, as well as Paul Cabanel and Martial Singher. Here Pernet incarnates a spiteful Shylock, spewing his hatred of those who use and despise him, with the composer conducting. Creator recordings don’t get any better:


Well, our story has, alas, a sad ending. A few weeks after a Geneva Boris performance, Pernet was struck down with what has been discreetly described as a ¨cruelle maladie¨ which ended his career completely. He was to languish for eighteen years in an asylum in the 14th arrondissement in Paris, until he died on June 17, 1966, aged 72. He became, it was said, totally paralysed, an unspecified ¨paralysis,¨ sans etiology, being usually cited in biographical sketches. I’ll just add that, in my humble opinion, those of his contemporaries who were in the know…. and of course, one must consider that there was considerable shame then as now about mental health and disease, as with cancer…. knew and spoke freely of his having suffered a complete emotional breakdown with attendant physical manifestations, thus, paralysis. One thinks of such great artists as Lina BrunaRasa or Suzanne Lefort, who were likewise afflicted, and those driven to despair and suicide. As with Pernet, they live on in memory through their recordings. Thank God we have those. To the writer of these words, no singer on records puts his imprint on the music and characters better than Pernet. His is the voice which comes to the mind’s ear in any of the music he recorded. What a magnificent singer he was!

                                                                     Father Cornelius Mattei



JD Hobbes said...

What a fine article! Thank you. I have to rethink my position on Chaliapin's "Boris." It was always my favorite until now.

Father C is so well informed and has such an interesting background. Again, thank you!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, Mr. Hobbes, as always. A great comment, and you are absolutely right about Fr. Cornelius, who writes beautifully and has astonishing knowledge. We are starved in this country for knowledge of this kind about great French singers. I cannot tell you how much I have learned since Father consented to begin writing for us. What a pleasure it has been to learn about Pernet, a truly magnificent bass!

Fr Cornelius Mattei said...

Sad to see so many fine clips which were formerly on YouTube, have recently disappeared from view. Must be an anti-Pernet cabal out there! Just kidding. By the way, THAT's the very photo on the cover of the French Odeon/Parlophone LP I bought that day. On the back there was an unforgettable pic of Pernet as Bazile in Barber.

Edmund St. Austell said...

BTW, I'll keep looking for some of the seemingly disappeared Pernet clips, and if I can find them, I'll put them up on my Youtube channel.

Fr Cornelius Mattei said...


Fr Cornelius Mattei said...

For JDHobbes: Boris, and Russian opera had become popular in mot European countries, especially France, due to Diaghilev's missionary efforts before the Great War. It seems sadly overlooked that he brought opera as well as ballet from the east. In the French-language theaters of the period between the wars, there were three outstanding protagonists for Boris: Pernet, of course, but also Vanni-Marcoux and Jean Aquistapace. The latter though an unfamiliar name to most, also left recordings of his Boris, which are eminently worth seeking out. Glad you enjoyed the posting. BTW, Pernet's Boris, one of his final Geneva performances, beautifully conducted by Ansermet and with a very strong supporting cast, has been available on CD from Malibran. Cheers.

Darren Seacliffe said...

I've sent an email on Andre Pernet straight to your email account a number of days back. I think you might have missed it given the swamp of emails I know you're having nowadays.

Nope, it's not exactly a comment. I'm having my last few years in college at the moment so I've not been able to participate in the blog discussions as I used to. Sincere apologies for that.