This isn’t a review per se, but an opinion piece based on my direct experience with empirical evidence. And I hope, in doing so, to avoid what the famed cartoonist and blogger Scott Adams refers to as “cognitive dissonance.”
While perusing reviews of the old Gheorghiu-Alagna Werther recording, I ran across one lamenting the loss of the “authentic” French style of singing in opera and chanson. To wit, this was a straightforward way of singing the notes and only the notes, of not distorting or interpreting anything not explicitly set in the score by the composer. So of course, this critic’s benchmark for Werther was the old 1931 recording by Ninon Vallin and Georges Thill. I’ll bet you his favorite Pelléas et Mélisande is the old 1941 recording by Jacques Jansen, Irene Joachim and Roger Désormière conducting, and his pick for Contes d’Hoffmann the 1948 recording with Renée Faure, Raoul Jobin, Louis Musy and conductor André Cluytens.
Of course, there is a “tradition” here that went back to at least 1870 or so. Composers such as Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Chausson, Massenet, Chabrier, Duparc, Debussy, Koechlin and Ravel clearly preferred to have their vocal music—and in many cases their instrumental music—sung and played come scritto without personal interpretation. Indeed, Debussy went so far as to commend his original Golaud, baritone Hector Dufranne, for sticking to just what was written and not trying to interpret his music. Happily for Debussy and all the others, French (and Belgian, and French-Swiss) singers held fast to this ideal until the early 1950s.
But—and I rush to point this out—only in French-speaking countries. Need I remind you of the maverick artists, and performances, that defied this tradition? Of the exciting and enlivening performances of Mephistopheles by Marcel Journet and especially Feodor Chaliapin? Of Chaliapin’s equally thrilling performances in Massenet’s Don Quichotte? Of Emma Calvé’s barn-burning Carmen, or the incendiary Carmen performances given at the Metropolitan Opera by a succession of theatrical singers: Farrar and Caruso, Gay and Zenatello, etc.?
That was when things began to change, and leading the charge against the “non-interpretive” school of singing was Belgian baritone Gérard Souzay. But Souzay had allies, among them sopranos Pierette Alarie and Régine Crespin, baritone Gabriel Bacquier, and a host of other non-Gallic singers who sang that repertoire such as Nicolai Gedda, Boris Christoff and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. They were the products of a new aesthetic, and sooner or later their exciting and theatrical approach to the music led to an entirely new standard. This critic I mentioned may indeed think that Thill is the greatest Werther on record, but three generations of listeners feel differently. For them Gedda, Alagna and Alfredo Kraus are the benchmark tenors for this role.
But what was the “French style” like before 1870? No one knows for sure because we have no recordings, but if you read (and believe) in the written descriptions of such French-repertoire singers as Gilbert Duprez, Pauline Viardot-Garcia and others, there was passion aplenty in the live performances of operas from the period of Gluck through Berlioz and Meyerbeer. Dramatic excitement, at least vocally, was the key to the public acceptance even of such “interlopers” as Cherubini and Spontini, Italians who established themselves and their operas in Paris.
If we want to know why the later chaste style came into play, we need to look at the surprisingly wild success in France of the “bel canto boys,” particularly Rossini and Donizetti, and the style in which their operas were sung. Judging by the written reviews and reports, the singers of that time took so many liberties with the music—particularly in Rossini—that the composers themselves could scarcely recognize their own music. The funniest and most famous incident involved Adelina Patti, who sang a particularly over-ornamented version of “Una voce poco fa” for the elderly composer. His reaction was, “That was wonderful! But who wrote it?”
Thus we can see that this was, in part, a backlash to excess. That it held on as long as it did was due solely to the stubborn insistence that the French, like the British, have to anything resembling a “national tradition.” And it affected a great many recordings and peerformances of opera and art song.
Within its boundaries, there was, of course, nothing wrong with it. Certainly I find the early electrical recordings of excerpts from Pelléas, some of which included Dufranne as Golaud, interesting and attractive in its own way. I’m also very fond of the large number of recordings left us by soprano Maggie Teyte, Debussy’s second Mélisande and French by adoption. Even her scenes from Massenet’s Manon show a chaste approach that is extraordinarily appealing. But it’s not what I would want to hear time and time again.
So how far do we go? Certainly, I don’t want to hear Massenet, Duparc, Debussy or Poulenc sung like Mascagni or Cilea, but I do appreciate some interpretation. I’m used to it; I grew up with it; and so did most of the modern audience. Yet there are some who would still insist that we go back to an era, and a style, dead and gone.
My loyal readers can probably figure out what the moral of this tale is. It’s yet another bit of proof that “historically informed performances” are rubbish because 1) we don’t know what pre-recording performances really sounded like, 2) we don’t know if the COMPOSERS even liked the tradition you’re trying to force on us, and 3) we’re used to a different performance style nowadays and we don’t want, or need, to go backwards to some prehistoric, half-assed “style” that you don’t even know is really authentic or not. We live in our time, and the performances of our time are valid to us. We don’t need for them to be valid to audiences of 50, or 100, or 200 years ago. So please, just stop your false agenda and let performers perform in the manner they choose, not a manner or style you wish to impose on them.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley