Arias and songs from: CHABRIER Le roi magré lui. CHAMINADE Ronde d’amour. L’anneau d’argent. CHARPENTIER Louise. COUPERIN (arr. Tiersot) Les tambourins.Read moreFLOTOW L’ombre. GLUCK Les pelerins de la Mecque. GOUNOD Le medecin magré lui. HALÉVY Le val d’Andorre. HENRION Le vieux ruban. LEVADÉ Les vieilles de chez-nous. MASSÉ Les saisons. MASSENET Le jongleur de Notre-Dame. MEYERBEER Le pardon de Ploërmel. MESSAGER La Basoche. MOZART Don Juan. La fl_x9E_te enchantée. PAËR Le maitre de chapelle. WIDOR Vieille chanson du jeune temps
Many years ago, a professor of mine, Daniel Krempel, incisively illustrated the importance of media as the keeper of cultural memory. He pointed to the example of a noted European circus clown of the late 19th century whose elaborate skits—the equivalents of one-act plays, really—received popular accolades for many years, and were requested repeatedly for performance before the reigning heads of state. But the man was forgotten within years of his retirement, while a clown of the next generation, named Charles Chaplin, is remembered and still revered today, thanks to the permanent record of film. Similarly, the reasons behind the near-cult status attained by Lucien Fugère—who began singing regularly at the Opéra-Comique in 1877, and continued doing so as late as 1920, more than four decades later, at the age of 71—couldn’t be easily conveyed by a collection of press notices or the lengthy list of important roles he created in operatic world premieres. Stating that he was the first Father in Charpentier’s Louise, or the first Sancho in Massenet’s Don Quichotte, is as much as to say Michael Kelly created Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni: a piece of history, and dead to most listeners who have little concern with the operatic past save how it once sounded.
But this is precisely where Fugère differs from Kelly. The basse chantante (literally, a singing or high-lying bass) did leave several recordings of his voice, though the Columbia 78s used by Symposium were all issued between 1928 and 1930, when Fugère was 80–82 years of age. Yet these recordings do not diminish the singer’s legend. Instead, they help explain it. There is no denying that the voice on this album is past its bloom. Breath support is unreliable, and the chest has dried out, leading to instances of phrasing where resonating tone may work if called upon or may just produce a hollow, dead sound. He is incapable of the stentorian production required by Meyerbeer’s “Chant du chasseur” (La pardon de Ploërmel), with its colorful use of hunting horns, or the first section of Gluck’s “C’est un torrest impetueux” (Les pelerins de la Mecque). But aside from these faults, there’s little to show on recordings that Fugère was actually out of his vocal prime, much less entering his ninth decade. The voice doesn’t quiver around the pitch, suffer from faulty intonation or unnecessary tonal pressure, or include slides and additional syllables to ease transition between notes—all problems that tend to appear in middle-aged singers, and may even develop in youth. Negative virtues, to be sure, but what more can be expected at the age of 80? Perhaps a surprising degree of vocal dexterity, impeccable stylishness, and great skill at characterization.
This proves to be the case time and again, perhaps most notably so in the amusingly mad set piece “Ah quell plaisir,” with its imitation of different instruments, from Paër’s Le maitre de chapelle. Fugère easily launches both figures and (especially in the first half) a few astonishingly accurate runs, while providing a series of expressive faces. His legato, when required later in the piece, is a thing of beauty, even if there remains no satin around the tone; and the blend between his upper register and falsetto is so gradual and carefully maintained as to be invisible.
Roger Nichols pays tribute to Fugère’s records in his The Harlequin Years: Music in Paris 1917–1929. “With due allowance made for his 80 years, these show a quite astonishing command of diction and timing.” If by diction the writer means enunciation, I agree. Fugère’s production, formed in French music halls, owes much to an older French tradition dating back to the Renaissance, emphasizing the importance of the word in all musical settings. The singer supplies many fine instances of this, such as Henrion’s “Le vieux ruban,” a charming little thing that depends almost entirely for its effect on manipulation of soft colors and sheer personality. These Fugère supplies, giving us the text with an offhand, almost conversational clarity. It’s as though the song was an effort of the current moment and a dialogue with an unseen but sympathetic ear, perhaps one’s own.
But Nichols also states Fugère began making records in 1928, missing the fact that Fugère recorded four sides for Zonophone in 1902, and five more for Pantophone in 1904–05. Many of these were re-released by the obscure Canadian firm, Rococo, back in LP days (and never, alas, reissued on CD), while one—the “Dans un délire extreme” from Isouard’s La Joconde—has surfaced again in the last few years on Symposium 1281, “A Survey of European Zonophone Recordings, 1901–1903.” The Zonophones and Pantophones display a trifle firmer voice with decent breath support and just a bit more resonance when called upon; but Fugère’s sound aged very little between his fifties and eighties, if these records are a reliable witness.
Some critics chastise singers whose voices fade after 10 or 15 years for faulty technique or overexposure. However, not everybody is equally blessed at birth with lungs, vocal chords, musculature, and resonating chambers warranted to last for a quarter of a century or more of heavy use. If, on top of being one of the luckier ones, you also keep to excellent habits of training and the proper mindset, you, too, may end up like Fugère. Some ideas that inform that mindset were fortunately left by the 83-year-old bass to posterity in a 1931 interview. Here are a few of his perceptive observations: “I first determine how I would interpret the role were I to speak it. Then, I sing it with the same expression. In other words, I sing as I talk.” “The great secret is never to force the voice. My effort has been never to shout or scream, always to articulate as perfectly as possible.” “Voice is the singer’s worst enemy. Instead of lacking voice, singers usually have too much of it . . . Inside of ten minutes, an audience knows all there is to know about a voice.”
There speaks the character singer, who made a life’s career out of singing as naturally as possible, without overuse of his resources. But it’s not a bad prescription for any opera performer, regardless of range and ambition, and displays a shrewd understanding of what impresses on stage. Fugère continued singing professionally into his 84th year. He died three years later. Let’s leave the final words here to him: “Inactivity is the only thing I fear. It brings on old age, you know.”
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