A Tribute to Gabriel Bacquier

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GABRIEL BACQUIER IN MEMORIAM / MOZART: Don Giovanni: Finch’han dal vino; Deh, vieni alla finestra / Aix-en-Provence Orchestra; Alberto Erede, cond (live: 1960) / MOZART: Le nozze de Figaro: Hai già vinta la causa! / Paris Opéra Orch; Sir Georg Solti, cond (live: 1973) / MOZART: Così fan Tutte: Tutti accusan le donne / Francisco Araiza, ten (Ferrando); Knut Skram, bar (Guglielmo); Aix-en-Provence Orch; Sir Charles Mackerras, cond (live: 1977) / GLUCK: Orphée et Eurydice: J’ai perdu mon Eurydice / Teatro Colon Buenos Aires Orch.; Jean Fournet, cond (live: 1966) / OFFENBACH: Les Contes d’Hoffmann: Voyons, pour Hoffmann…Dans le roles; Allez! Pour te livrer…Scintille, diamante / Teatro Colon Orch.; Peter Maag, cond (live: 1970) / BIZET: Les pêcheurs des perles: Au fond du temple saint; L’orage se calmé…O Nadir, tender ami / Alain Vanzo, ten (Nadir); Orchestre Radio-Lyrique; Manuel Rosenthal, cond (1959) / POULENC: Dialogue des Carmélites: Le carrosse…la foule…pardonnez-moi / Teatro Colon Orch.; Jean Fournet, cond (live: 1965) / ROSSINI: Guglielmo Tell: Resta immobile / Teatro Colon Orch.; Fernando Previtali, cond (live: 1966) / VERDI: La Traviata: Di provenza / Teatro Colon Orch.; Juan Emilio Martini, cond (live: 1965) / VERDI: Otello: Vanne…Credo un in Dio crudel / Paris Opéra Orch.; Sir Georg Solti, cond (live: 1976) / PUCCINI: Tosca: Tosca, divina, la mano mia…Tre sbirri, una carrozza / Gwyneth Jones, sop (Tosca); Royal Opera, Covent Garden Orch.; Sir Georg Solti, cond (live: 1974) / Opera Depot OD 11924-1, available HERE

Gabriel Bacquier, who died on May 13 of this year, four days short of his 94th birthday, was not just a French baritone or even just the greatest French baritone of his time. He was one of the real giants of 20th-century art, a man as important to the evolution of opera as we know it today as were Feodor Chaliapin, Maria Callas and Jon Vickers.

I heard Bacquier several times on Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts but only saw him in person twice, as Scarpia in Tosca (opposite Teresa Zylis-Gara) and as Fra Melitone in La Forza del Destino—the same production of Forza, in fact, that featured Vickers as Don Alvaro. Unfortunately, they don’t appear on stage at the same time. That would have been something to see. Because what you got with Bacquier was, as is so often said of him, “the total package,” a rich, fine-sounding voice, good technique, but most important of all, interpretation that often bordered on the psychic. Those who saw his performances as the four villains in Les Contes d’Hoffmann have never forgotten them to this day. As with Callas and Vickers, both of whom I saw in person, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. No matter what the role, he commanded the stage as if he owned it.

Yet although Bacquier kept his plangent, rich-sounding voice, which had a touch of the bass in it, into his fifties, it was not always under perfect control, either in person or on records. When you were watching him, you’d swear that it was the greatest baritone voice on earth, but then when you listened to an audio-only tape of the performance (and I’m talking now of the 1970s, which is when I saw and heard him most often) you noticed an uneven flutter at times and high notes that he just got to by the grace of God.

But not on this well-chosen CD of excerpts from some of Bacquier’s greatest, and some of his rarest, live performances recorded between 1959 and 1976. He is at his best in each of these, not just interpretively (we’ll get to that in a moment) but also technically. His voice is in great shape almost consistently throughout this entire live recital.

From a vocal standpoint, I was startled to hear what great vocal control he had in that 1959 Don Giovanni, but also how well he sang in the 1976 Otello and several other stops along the way. In addition, the sheer diversity of roles and music will surprise you; he sang everything from the Classical era of Mozart and Gluck to the Verismo era of Puccini, with several stops in between. Just about the only composer whose music he never touched, but should have, was Wagner.

As you go through this listening experience, you will hear things you’ve never heard before in arias and scenes you thought you knew well. Chief among these is Orfeo’s “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice”; never in my life have I heard a more heartfelt performance of this aria, and Bacquier does not overdo anything. He just gives you Orfeo’s grief, plain and simple, in the music. Equally impressive to me was his surprisingly touching “Di provenza” from La Traviata, his warm and friendly-sounding Zurga in Les Pêcheurs des Perles, and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, his moving and dramatic reading of the Marquis’ monologue from Dialogues des Carmélites, an opera I heartily dislike. Bacquier’s performance had me riveted. It almost goes without saying that he gives you a superb “Credo” from Otello; oh, how I wish that he had sung this role at the Met opposite Vickers, but it always seemed as though Vickers was paired with Louis Quilico’s Iago at the New York house.

The sound quality of these excerpts, of course, is radio-quality mono but nearly all of them are quite clear and decently-recorded. In addition to the above delights, you also get a chance to hear young Alain Vanzo as Nadir and Gwyneth Jones at her peak as Tosca. The conductors, not identified on the album notes (but they are in my header), are nearly all among the finest of their time.

It’s a shame that Bacquier never seemed to be a “regular” Met artist, however. He seemed to just show up now and then to sing in a couple of operas for their run and then disappear for a couple of years or more, but when he was there, people flocked to see him. Not all of his studio recordings are as good as these live performances, particularly the studio Don Giovannni with Joan Sutherland or the studio Guillaume Tell with Caballé and Gedda (nor was Gedda very good on that Tell), but in this live recital you really do get nearly “the full package” of Bacquier’s art.

And here is the best part: for one week only, it’s available as a FREE DOWNLOAD at Opera Depot! Just click on the link in the header and it will take you to the home page where you can download it for free if you just sign up to get email notifications. It’s a small price to pay for this kind of artistry. Believe me!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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