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Monday, April 13, 2009

Georges Thill: Exemplar of French Bel Canto

The French are deservedly famous for their aggressive cultivation of high culture and high style, and I for one lament the fact that we do not hear more French opera today, and especially that we do not hear great French tenors such as Georges Thill. (Alagna deserves his own review, later.) Many myths exist about the difficulties of singing in French, and they are just that--myths. They come largely from Italian singers who cannot make the sounds properly ("le" always seems to come out "lay," etc.) or English-speaking singers who try too hard to make the sounds, and nearly choke in the process. In general, for some reason, English-speaking sopranos (e.g. Renée Fleming) do much better than the men. Listening to Georges Thill provides proof positive that French can be sung very beautifully indeed. Thill's training, like that of so many great tenors of the early 20th century, was founded upon bel canto techniques, in his case in the person of the great Italian tenor Fernando de Lucia, whom Thill greatly admired. Thill recalled, in an interview that can be seen on Youtube, that de Lucía insisted that “in order to sing well, one must open the mouth and PRO-NOUN-CE CLEAR-LY! Which he certainly did. The result was pure, easy, open phonation, only slightly covered across the passagio and into the upper register. He soared with consummate ease into the stratospheric reaches of the high Db, often (but not invariably) using mixed voice in the extreme upper register, when he felt that the tradition and the style not only permitted but required it. The following clip features him in rehearsal, and you have a chance to hear his high Db, an amazing, nearly open sound, very different from the heavily covered and dark Italian sounds so prevalent today. In the interview that follows, in French, he talks about his study with De Lucia, and the latter’s insistence on opening the mouth widely and pronouncing clearly. The section after that shows him singing----can you believe?—Wagner! Bel canto only refers to a vocal production technique—its application can be as universal as taste permits.

Thill’s voice is very much a French phenomenon.  Some, accustomed only to Italian singing, will sometimes say that the color is too “white,” or that the voice is “shrill.” I do not accept these judgments. Singing styles and vocal coloration are, in the last analysis, national—in exactly the same way that balletic style or the determination of female beauty is national. Comparisons become odious. The style must fit the language, as well as the national taste and aesthetic tradition.


corax said...

view to a THILL!

thanks for this post, sir edmund, and thanks for [long ago] alerting me to the amazing recordings that still survive of this remarkable singer. what a sound. quelle beaute', mon dieu, quelle elegance!

Edmund said...

Oui, en effet, mon ami. Et pour Thill, l'élégance, c'est tout!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the article, Sir Edmund. You do a very important thing “promoting” great singers of the past. Thill was a master and had a beautiful voice; I don’t know who can call it “shrill”. The timbre reminds me of Lemeshev’s. Besides, it would be boring to hear only the modern Italian style of singing.
Maybe the latest fashion for heavier and lower voices has something to do with the general lack of lyricism. I read many times on our main operatic forum that people don’t like tenors, especially high voices, or they think that lyric characters should be sung by dramatic tenors. Otherwise they “don’t look like men”.

John said...

Hello, Edmund. Excellent site. I look forward to returning here regularly to sample & discuss the great historical legacy that has beeen left for us from the bel canto past. I have recently discovered a truly remarkable talent by the name of Joseph Calleja. I cannot overstate how excited I have become about his potential. I genuinely believe that he is of the calibre of Bjorling. His technique is virtually flawless, & his musical line & confidence in varying dynamics even in live performance, is wondrous to behold. Fond regards. John.

Edmund said...

Thank you so much, my friend, for your comments. I am glad to hear from you, and hope we have the opportunity to enjoy your comments and nearly unique insights into vocal technique again and again. Do tell us more about Joseph Calleja when you have the opportunity. Regards, Edmund

Edmund said...

Dear Anonymous: Thank you, and does indeed get boring listening only to Italian style singers. Unfortunately, here in the United States, we have had a pretty steady dose of it, and still do. It's the old question of elegance and style that I come back to time and again. Verismo did so much harm, in my opinion, and it is going to be a long trek back to the grace and elegance of earlier times. I think it will happen, eventually, because I see increasing numbers of people yearning for something other than screaming tenors. And as to the masculinity issue, I think you probably read my piece a couple of weeks ago on gender issues in the fine arts. Again, verismo. There was no trouble identifying high voiced male singers as men back in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Sometimes, I think women actually prefer it! It all gets very complicated, I know, and I think it is related to the eternal feminine and the figure of the "goddess" in fine arts. But enough! Time for that later:) Edmund

John said...

Thank you, Edmund! Well, I know it's off topic since you are on Thill, but I will tell you something of Calleja, since you ask:)

I feel that we may have, with Calleja, one of the most talented artists in many a generation. You have probably looked at some videos of his since I wrote; are you as stunned as I am at the musical & interpretive intelligence & vocal dynamics? It's quite rare for this level of dynamic shading to occur in the recording studio these days, let alone in concert. Not to mention the technical expertise that allows it.
You will find, under his videos, some curious vituperative comments, along with much praise. I feel that in a strange reverse psychological way, it is an indication of his stature. We don't like the idea that our treasured idols might be having their long held unquestioned superiority put into sharper focus by a seemingly impudent newcomer. This has always occurred of course. Caruso was great, but somehow lacking the romantic soul of Jean De Reske. Pavarotti was fine, but lacking the tonal glow of Bjorling, etc, etc, & so it goes on. Perhaps it is because the art of singing is to many lay people less a technical & intellectual exercise than it is one of emotional identification.

The wonderful saving grace, with Calleja, is that not only has he the determination to try to give the audience the very best that is in him, but he also seems to take such endearingly modest delight that they have considered him to have performed well. That he has the humility to want to do the utmost justice to the piece & the profession that he loves, makes it easier to forgive him his great talent. The fact that he so evidently gives enormous thought & practice to the meaning & emotion of what he sings, will lead to him becoming an artist of great stature, not simply an extraordinary voice.
As to his vibrato,.. love it, love it, love it! - The free emission & regularity of the tonal pulse is the first & best indicator of a correct & balanced registration. Notice that he has not succumbed to loading up on his lower voice, nor does he drive out his upper notes. This excites me, because often, whenever a singer of stature has found the ideal technique for themselves at, or soon after their debut, they often abuse the freedom of emission that is concomitant with that technique, by taking it as licence to add more & more voice. They fail to understand that it is the restraint upon the mechanisms of the voice that give rise to vocal ease, & that tampering with that fine delicate balance will inevitable lead to the unravelling of the technique. It may be frustrating to those who wish to please, but perfection cannot be improved upon. I'm so pleased to be a new member of your site. I look forward to reading & contributing to such a wonderful venture!
Fondest regards, John.

JD hobbes said...

Yes, very good. It is difficult to tell from these clips, because the sound quality varies so much. At the top his voice seems "pinched" on one video but not another. I hope to see him in person one day. From the clips I think his voice would carry very well in a large auditorium as is mentioned above.

Edmund said...

Yes, the quality of the voice is noteworthy. The technique is excellent if he can control it around the edges and not let his breath support slip. A rather remarkable consistency of tone up and down the scale. I haven't heard his C, but given the quality of the B, and the consistency of tone leading up to it, I suspect it is there.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this great article on M. Thill. Him and Alfredo Kraus were my first tenor experiences and are now among my absolute favorites. When I first heard him on YT I only vaguley liked him; It took me a few years of listening and learning to appreciate the vocal art to finally realize what a great singer he really is. After a mind-blowing tour with the most beautiful tenor voices (Gigli, di Stefano, Björling, etc.) I wondered if I was going to enjoy listening to this French gentleman I [re]tried his "Salut, demeure", and ironically, that's when I redicsovered him and felt great shame for ever questioning such a great artist! In fact, Thill is on a very short list of singers who actually made me REPLAY a usually dull, recitative-like piece, not once, but twice! It also took me some time to see that, apart from a gorgeous phrasing and overall brilliant singing, the voice itself was magic.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment. I really appreciate it. Yes, I know exactly what you mean, and I heartily agree with you! Thill was a very great tenor, trained in the best bel canto technique by another great tenor, Fernando de Lucia. He was Parisian to the core, and spent nearly all his life at the Paris opera, where he was adored. And that is saying something, because the Parisian audience was then, and remains today, very discriminating. His elegance and charm, coupled with a great voice and a brilliant technique, guaranteed his success there!

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

You write many good articles Edmund, but they are the ones like this that I love the most, for they are more than a report of a singer, they are also a tribute to their art.

Georges Thill I always think of the same as Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. They are perfect models of how to sing well, and when you hear them sing, you can only think a single thing: "perfect singing."

These immortal two were NEVER let down by solid technique, and they were always ready and eager to front any test that a younger, less technically accomplished tenor might give, even into their eighth decades.

In the pantheon of the greatest tenors ever, along with Adolphe Nourrit and Giovanni Rubini, are Lauri-Volpi and Thill.

Thank you so such for this article, it is a beautiful thing.

Edmund StAustell said...

And thank YOU very much for a lovely comment. I totally agree--Thill and Lauri-Volpi are absolute exemplars of the art of beautiful singing! (And of course Thill had the good sense to go to another great bel canto tenor, Fernando de Lucia!

Guillaume said...

Hello everybody,

Great article about a great tenor.

Last year, Roberto Alagna spoke about Georges Thill on the French radio station France Musique. His comments concerned specifically the aria "In Fernem Land" from Wagner's Lohengrin, which sir Edmund made available on his Youtube channel:

As I thought it was interesting, I have translated it for you:

“Wagner can be really beautiful when it is sung like this. It is extraordinary. Nowadays, if somebody sings like this, people would say everything he sings is forte. But no, everything he sings is toned, and it is very different. It means everything is homogenous even in the mezzo forte, and it is fantastic by its simplicity. It is amazing, but now people would criticize him, saying he is short of breath because he makes caesuras everywhere, etc. No, he has a real diction, we can understand everything, the caesuras are where they ought to be. And at the same time, the tone all the time, from the piano to the forte, remains homogenous. And his voice is clear, he is a real tenor. He is a real tenor singing Wagner, and all of a sudden Wagner becomes belcanto-like, becomes solar. As you have seen, it gave me goose pimples, it is something one has no control over, and it supports the fact that he is doing the right thing. But what is fantastic is his simplicity, the things he does seem obvious.”

The full interview can be listened to here: