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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Renee Doria: Iron Woman

Renée  Doria:  Iron Woman

By Father Cornelius Mattei

     She sang over 2500 performances during an onstage career of more than forty years; 76 rôles on stage, 125 rôles on radio broadcasts:   she recorded over a period spanning one half century. Let  us honor in this blog the living the term in not abused...still among us at  age 94, Mme. Renée Doria.

       Born at Perpignan on February 13, 1921 to a musical family, she studied both piano and voice, making her professional début as a singer, age 18, in concert. A protegée of composer and conductor Reynaldo Hahn, she stepped onto the operatic stage for the first time as Rosina in the Barber of Seville at Marseille in 1942. Not long ago there surfaced an air-check of a performance from Radio Provence late that year: she sings Constanza’s ¨aria di salita,¨ under Hahn’s baton, following their performances of ¨Abduction¨ at the Cannes Casino. Let’s hear it:

       A lyric ¨soprano d’agilità,¨ Doria was soon singing in theaters in wartime France under the stressful conditions then prevalent on both sides of the line of demarcation, eventually making her Paris début as Lakmé at the Gaieté Lyrique in 1943, the same rôle serving for her début on October 20 1946 at the Opéra Comique. From a contemporary radio broadcast, here she is in that calling-cardrôle, with André Pernet as Nilakantha:

Other rôles followed: Rosina, Olympia, Philine, Manon, Leïla, Violetta. On January 4, 1947, she made her début at the Opéra as the queen of the night in The Magic Flute, a rôle which she dropped permanently after two performances only, thereafter preferring Pamina, another of the eleven Mozart roles which figured in her répertoire, often in both the original language, and sometimes in multiple French translations! Mme.Doria performed at both Paris theaters until the dawn of the 1960s, amid an intensive and extensive career in the then still very active theaters throughout France as well as Belgium, in Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain. Listen to this unusual rarity from a RadioNetherlands broadcast, circa 1947:

Renée Doria was the last ¨historic¨ Ophélie in Thomas’ ¨Hamlet,¨appearing with that American prodigal son, Endrèze during his farewell to the rôle. She also sang, if memory serves, two performances of Don Pasquale with Tito Schipa, that artist’s only staged opera performances in Paris.

       Married to the recording producer, vocal connoisseur and collector Guy Dumazert, Mme. Doria recorded extensively, almost always those things she sang on stage or in concert. One of the things which needs be mentioned here is that through her recording of Thaïs...another of her successes onstage... she had an impact on many, if not most, sopranos who listened to the following scene and have thereafter attempted the high pianissimo...twice as long as the note in the printed score:

       As with LauriVolpi’s extended high B at the end of ¨Nessun dorma,¨ or Vickers’ emendations in ¨Peter Grimes,¨ the tailoring of the score to the talents, preferences and style of a distinguished interpreter has an inevitable impact when it creates a memorable effect, as here.

       The other subject which needs, in my opinion, to be mentioned, is the subject of vocal timbre. Although recorded ab extenso. Mme Doria’s voice was, as with many crystalline soprano voices, from Melba and dal Monte to Luciana Serra, not very faithfully captured by recording technology: the simple, clear sound has never been favored by either horn or microphone. The rich aureola of harmonics which surround such a the theater… a sound whose very top tones are set upon a solid integration of chest resonance throughout the entire vocal range, thus ensuring stability, longevity and retention of the top tones through a long career. What sounds like a hard, shrill quality, to those who know such voices in person, results from distortion excited and exacerbated by the microphones’ favoring of dark or ¨rich’ sounds, the cultivation of which has demonstrably shortened the careers of a number of prominent soprani,abridging their high tones and introducing a ¨wobble¨ as a result of cutting the ¨head¨ resonancefree from anchoring in the ¨chest.¨  Here is Renée Doria, in a rôle which she did not perform onstage, but recorded to critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic-- Fanny in Massénet’s ¨Sapho¨:


       That was in 1978, and was her last complete opera recording. Continuing to sing in concert after her farewell to the operatic stage in 1981, as late as 1993, she was still recording. Let’s sample one of those last sessions:

Why ¨Iron Woman?¨ Well, Renée Doria, over the course of her career, performed feats of endurance which bear testament to her skill, determination and ironclad technique: three Manons and three Mireilles during the course of single weekends at the Opéra Comique (Friday and Saturday evenings, Sunday matinée)... her scheduled performances and covering for indisposed colleagues. Two other memorable occasions of heavy lifting also deserve mention: once, following a Thursday night Rosina at the Comique, she sang Violetta at the Opéra on Saturday night, hopped on a night train to Strasbourg and sang ¨Thaïs¨ en matinée the following afternoon. On another occasion, she began her week singing two ¨Manon¨ in Geneva, passed, once more through Strasbourg, singing all three heroines in ¨Hoffman,¨ and rounding off the calendar week in two ¨Lucia di Lammermoor¨ appearances at Rouen. Children, don’t try that at home!  Lets bid farewell, but not goodbye to her, as Louise :

Subtle, discreet. A deeply felt performance free of eccentricity and self indulgence.


                                                         Father Cornelius Mattei                          

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Great Claire Croiza
Claire Croiza  was born in 1882 in Paris, the daughter of an  American father and an Italian mother.  She was, even as a  child, clearly gifed in music.  She was taught singing privately at first, but then, as she began to grow up, she had the great good fortune to have been sent  to the famous Polish tenor Jean de Reszke for further study.  De Reszke was not only a great tenor—one of the best of his day, in the 19th century—but also, importantly, a renowned teacher and he taught many aspiring singers who would go on to have great success.

After advanced study with de Reszke, Croize made her opera début at the relatively tender age of 23 in Nancy in 1905 in Messaline by Isidore de Lara. The following year she made her first appearance at La Monnaie in Brussels, as Dalila in Samson et Dalila, beginning a long association with that theatre which included such works as Elektra, Carmen, La favorite, Werther and singing the title role in Fauré's opera Pénélope. In 1910 she performed in the world premiere of Cesare Galeotti’s La Dorise and created the title role in the world premiere of Pierre de Bréville's Éros vainqueur at La Monnaie. It was again as Dalila that she made her Paris Opera début in 1908.  Although Croiza  first established herself as an operatic singer, she increasingly developed her career as a recitalist specialising in mélodies, and she undertook recital tours in numerous countries, including making frequent visits to London where she was very well received. She had a great feeling for the French language and was always able to enunciate the words in a clear and natural way without sacrificing the flow of the music. Several contemporary composers chose to accompany her personally in performances of their songs, including Ravel (in Shéhérazade), Fauré (in the premiere of Le jardin clos), Poulenc, Roussel, and Honegger.

Here, however,  is one of the fairly rare operatic recordings which Croiza made with Armand 

Narçon of excerpts from Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande:

     From 1922, she also worked as a teacher, giving classes in interpretation at the École Normale, and from 1934 at the Paris Conservatoire. Her pupils included Janine Micheau, Suzanne Juyol, Camille Maurane and the baritones Jacques Jansen and Gérard Souzay.

In 1926 Croiza gave birth to a son, Jean-Claude (1926–2003), whose father was Honegger, The parents did not marry. Although distinct,  her personal life was not all that far from the traditional personal lives of famous artists of her day.  As for her artistic reputation, it was,  virtually from the beginning, truly extraordinary.  Reviews from the early 1930’s spoke of her as “ a supreme interpreter of modern French song, saying that she “brings to them an exquisite sensibility that reveals every shade of meaning in the poems" (New York Times). This view was reinforced in an obituary tribute (also in The New York Times) which spoke of: "Her consummate musicianship, unerring in its intuition, sensitiveness, charm and subtlety, exquisite diction and phrasing, combined with deep poetical feeling and a restrained but profoundly moving dramatic sense allied to an unusually wide culture…”

Reduced to their essence, these critical comments have a theme, and that is one that can be further summarized by words such as  “elegance, ”  sensitivity, “ intellectual precision,” and “musical excellence.”  Here is an example; one which I will be bold enough to call typical.  Here is Duparc’s “Invitation au voyage:

Finally, here is one of the most elegantly beautiful pieces of music ever penned by the great Debussy, who was most fortunated to have it recorded by the amazing Claire Croiza:





Saturday, April 11, 2015

                                                           THE  GREAT BEN HEPPNER
Ben Heppner has been respected and applauded world-wide as one of the greatest heroic tenors to be seen and heard in many years. Born in British Columbia (Murrayville) in 1956, Heppner studied voice at the University of British Columbia and began to attract national attention primarily through contests, beginning with the Canadian Broadcasting Talent Festival in 1979. He went on to do a great deal of concertizing over the course of the next several years, and in 1988 won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions, and also the Birgit Nilsson Prize. From that moment on, Heppner went quickly to an international career, largely in the Wagnerian repertoire. He rapidly became, in the opinion of many critics and his increasingly large audience, one of the world's greatest Heldentenors. He performed for years at  the Metropolitan Opera and throughout all the major houses of Europe, not only in Wagner, but also in the heavier Italian repertoire, such as Andrea Chenier and Otello. He has made a rather astonishingly large number of recordings, in French, Italian, and German. His recordings include leading parts and title roles in Fidelio, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tristan und Isolde, Lohengrin, Otello and Berlioz's Aeneas.

To his credit, Heppner never slighted the French repertoire, and in fact the first recording he produced after signing an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammaphon was "Airs Français," which won a Juno Award. He has additionally, over the course of the last several years, been a marked presence at sporting events, including the Olympics. He was frequently heard singing the Canadian National Anthem, in which he always includes verses in French, and he has also recorded the Marseillaise. His attention to French music has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated in France.

First, the German repertoire, in which Heppner is everywhere accorded the status of a master. Here is Richard Strauss' very popular "Zueignung:"


There are very few within this repertoire who can match the power, color and even beauty of this extraordinary voice. It is easy enough, on Youtube, to hear Heppner sing many of the classics of the Wagnerian repertoire, such as "In Fernem Land," or Walter's "Prize Song." They are a bit too long to include here.

It is not only the Wagnerian repertoire, however, where Heppner shines. For a Heldentenor, he sings Italian quite well, and is vocally convincing in roles such as Andrea Chenier or Otello. Here is a very stirring rendition of the Italian Singer's aria from Der Rosenkavalier, "Di Rigori Armato il Seno." Strauss did not particularly like tenors, and he also had some feelings about Italian opera in general. This aria was intended to mock the excesses of Italian singing, but that kind of thing tends generally to backfire, because to a very large extent opera IS Italian music! It certainly backfired here, since this aria turned out to be one of the most popular pieces from Rosenkavalier, and just about every famous tenor in the world has recorded it! Although short, it is most difficult to sing, because it is has very high notes and florid phrases. It also, perhaps in spite of Strauss' intentions, happens to be extremely beautiful!

Now isn't that something! I think it safe to say that there are few Heldentenors now or ever who could do that. Heppner is unafraid of heights. He has even recorded "Di Quella Pira" in the original key. It can be easily found on Youtube.  Just look up Heppner, "Di Quella Pira."


Something else Heppner does amazingly well is sing in English, his native language, with absolutely none of the stress and strain, rolled "r" s, or muffled cover that for too many years marked (or marred) the attempts of English speakers trying to sing with trained voices in a comprehensible way. Here is the old and lovely "Roses of Picardy:"


Absolutely lovely! Sung in the modern manner, with enunciation as clear as that of any popular singer. Ben Heppner is a great tenor and a formidable artist, and richly deserves the fame he has come to enjoy over the course of the last twenty years.  He is now essentially semi-retired. He no longer sings  the Wagnerian works in deference to his age (he is now 58), but he continues to concertize and appear in those operas in which he is still comfortable, even modern pieces such as Moby Dick, which he helped create.  It has been an excellent career, and one of which he can deservedly be very proud.

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