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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Marcelle Bunlet

                                                   Marcelle Bunlet
 Father Cornelius Mattei

Good things often come in small packages, and big voices, which one often associates with opera stereotypes, sometimes come from bodies rather more discrete. Petite, even, in the case of women singers. Here in North America, we might remember the tiny Canadian Teresa Stratas, who had ample voice for such robust rôles as Cio-cio-san and Salomé.

     Perhaps the most extreme example among well-known 20th century opera singers was the  dramatic soprano Marcelle Bunlet, who, like her compatriot Denise Duval ,would always look ¨comme il faut¨ in couturier creations, but whose gleaming, radiant voice with its soaring top tones made her a natural for the rôles in which she excelled: the Brünnhildes, Isolde, Kundry, Elektra, Aïda, Dukas’ Ariane, and so forth. What our friends across the Rhine call a¨hochdramatische Sopran.¨

     Let’s hear her as Senta, and see how she masters the tricky tessitura of the ballad.


Born on October 10, 1900 at Fontenay-le-Comte in the Loire-Vendée region, Bunlet pursued the usual course of musical studies expected of French singers of her times, and was, due to her exceptional vocal endowment and evident musical versatility….she could learn difficult modern and contemporary scores with alacrity, which ability opened important career paths to her, as we shall see….brought to the attention of Philippe Gaubert, renowned flautist, conductor and pedagogue, who was the chief conductor at both the Opéra and the Concerts du Conservatoire for many years, champion of Wagner, Strauss, and of German music in general. It was Gaubert  who arranged for her Paris début, in concert with the Concerts Straram and soon thereafter, with the Concerts du Conservatoire.

That was in late 1926. She sang Leonora’s aria from ¨Fidelio¨ and an aria from Franck’s ¨Rédemption,¨ but when she returned shortly thereafter in what proved to be a long-lasting partnership with that orchestra, she captured the hearts of the Parisian public with Brünhilde’s Immolation from ¨Götterdämmerung.¨

     With the evident success of his protegée and the unanimous acclaim of the critics, Gaubert himself took her to Jacques Rouché, the  ultimillionaire Maecenas and director of the Paris Opéra. Débuts were arranged, and in early 1928, she appeared at both the Opéra Comique and the Opéra, singing ¨Ariane et Barbe-bleu¨ and the Götterdámmerung Brünnhilde, respectively. She had already performed the Dukas under Gaubert’s direction in concert.

     Let’s sample it:


     Shortly after finishing her six-run engagement of the Wagner at the Opéra, she made a triumphant début at the Royal Opera, Brussels, in her first of many Isoldes, to the Tristan of Jacques Urlus, whose last appearances in the rôle those are said to have been. Bunlet, after that time, was set in an international career which took her repeatedly to Belgium and also to Switzerland, Monaco, Germany, Argentina, Italy, Greece and, needless to say in all the important theaters of metropolitan France, with a particularly close relationship with the public and managements at Strasbourg, Bordeaux and Toulouse.

     Marcelle Bunlet established friendships and close relationships with a number of distinguished composers: Milhaud, whose ¨Agamemnon¨ she sang early in her career, Richard Strauss, who recommended her unreservedly to create his ¨Arabella¨ in French-language version and whom he conducted, at Strasbourg, in the title rôle of his Elektra.None of those friendships was more fortunate for her than that of Gustave Samazeuilh,composer, arguably France’s leading Wagnerite and longtime habitué of Bayreuth and friend of the Wagner family. He persuaded them to try Bunlet, who was hired to sing one of the flowermaidens in the 1931 Parsifal revival conducted by Toscanini….as well as to cover Kundry. As it happened, illness obliged the Dutch diva Elizabeth Ohms to cancel her final Kundry and Bunlet saved the day, to the gratitude of the conductor and the Wagners. She was invited back in 1933 as Woglinde, Helmwige and Sieglinde.

Let’s hear Kundry:

During the years of the second World War, Bunlet performed her usual dramatic soprano parts, though somewhat less frequently, in a number of the theaters which were far from combat zones--Lyon, Bordeaux,Toulouse. In Paris, though she did return to sing some Wagner and made a brilliant impression as Valentine in the storied 1936 revival of ¨Les Huguenots¨ starring Georges Thill and André Pernet, she remained under the shadow of Germaine Lubin, who was never reticent to use her influence with M. Rouché or her right, as ¨titulaire¨ to HER rôles, to keep rivals at a distance. Veterans of the period gave this as the reason for Bunlet’s spotty appearances in the capital during the least in the theater.

     In the concert hall and in recital it was another matter, for Bunlet had earned the respect of such composers as Roussel and the younger Olivier Messaien, both of whom composed with her voice in mind and both of whom dedicated works to her. Who nowadays, when hearing lighter lyric sopranos singing Messaien’s ¨Poèmes pour Mi¨ or his ¨Harawi¨ cycle is mindful that these were intended for and premièred by Marcelle Bunlet? Indeed, Messaien was so fond of her singing that he accompanied her in recital as late as the 1950s.

     After the end of hostilities, Marcelle Bunlet settled down in Strasbourg, where from 1945 until 1970, she taught at the local conservatory, appearing in a variety of rôles there at the same time. From 1950 on, she seems to have confined herself to the concert stage. Recordings of three such events are familiar to the author of this posting:

A performance of Albéric Magnard’s ¨Guercoeur¨...actually parts 1 and 3, from the ORTF, 1951,conducted by Tony Aubin. Bunlet, whose recording career was not very extensive, is nothing short of thrilling, her seemingly limitless top tones and brilliant sound being captured with as good fidelity as contemporary technology allowed: a stunning testament. Available some years ago in LP format and also on CD, it is much more than a mere curiosity and worth searching out.

A recital from 1954 from the theater at the Casino of Vichy with Messaien at the piano. Let’s

hear them in Debussy:

Finally, conducted by Gaston Poulet, father of violinist and pedagogue Georges Poulet, let’shear her in M. Samazeuilh’s ¨Le Sommeil de Canope,¨ a work which mixes influences of

Germanic post-romanticism with impressionism recalling the Arnold Schoenberg of Gurrelieder.


To some, the musical equivalent of purple prose, but very much to my taste, oh well.

Marcelle Bunlet died in December, 1991 in Paris, where she had continued to teach after she retired from her Strasbourg professorship. Among her pupils was the soprano Eliane Lublin.

So, a life of service to music with significant impact on contemporary composers...with a fullplate of Wagner Strauss, Gluck, Verdi, and even Bellini...Norma in Strasbourg...besides!

Not bad for a tiny woman from the country.

                                                                      Father Cornelius Mattei


JD Hobbes said...

Thanks again to Father C. When I think of petite sopranos, I somehow think of Jeanette MacDonald. But of course she did not compare with Bunlet. It is remarkable that Bunlet could carry off the difficult German operas as she did. Again, thank you.

Edmund St. Austell said...

It make take a while for your comment to be posted.

Edmund St. Austell said...

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Father Cornelius Mattei for sharing his considerable erudition with us today. Father's knowledge of French opera is quite remarkable, in fact close to unique. Edmund StAustell

Unknown said...

Merci pour cet excellent article. C'est une joie de voir un hommage de qualité rendu à cette extraordinaire chanteuse.

Jeffrey Roberts said...

I was delighted to read this article on the wonderful Marcelle Bunlet, a dramatic soprano I very much admire based on her small but interesting recorded legacy. The Dukas aria is particularly thrilling, rivaling my favorite recording by Suzanne Balguerie. Bunlet's Bayreuth appearances in 1931 (when she stepped in as Kundry at the last minute when both Elisabeth Ohms AND Henny Trundt were indisposed) and a follow up in 1933 (as Kundry again, Helmwige & Woglinde, and once as Sieglinde) perhaps should have led to more. Did she choose not to pursue further roles outside of France? Whatever the case, a most interesting singer and a welcome article.