Notes and Editorial Reviews
What a delight, both for music and singing! The music comes courtesy of André Messager (1853?1929) who studied at the Ecole Niedermeyer under Fauré and Saint-Saëns, among others. Upon leaving he succeeded Fauré as organist at St. Sulpice, and composed a symphony and a great deal of sacred music. His big break came when his publisher, Enoch, commissioned Messager to complete Firmin Bernicat?s unfinished operetta,
. Through the 1890s, Messager?s operettas were exceptionally popular for their combination of unforced sentiment, wit, spontaneous melody, and fine
orchestration. Who could resist the freshness and easy grace of
, or the musical anachronisms of
, which hardly mirror their Louis XII setting, but certainly provide an air of harmonic piquancy?
His string of successes fell off after the turn of the century. A good-natured and modest man, Messager?s broad musicality and success in more serious areas of his profession are all too often overlooked because of his operettas. Yet, he was also a respected music critic for several newspapers, and a concert-level pianist. He led numerous revivals of operas by Mozart, Gluck, and Rameau, and was an authority on Wagner (he conducted both the
Tristan und Isolde
in Paris) and the latest Russian music of the day. Messager encouraged Debussy during the composition of
Pelléas et Mélisande
and led the premiere. Other premieres he conducted include Charpentier?s
, and Massenet?s
. It was only late in life, in the 1920s, that Messager turned once again to operetta. Those works showed a canny knowledge of changing taste, adjusting to the more intimate, less classical, chanson-like atmosphere of the modern musical stage.
This two-CD set divides itself equally between the operettas of both periods. Some of his greatest stage hits are represented, several of them through creator recordings. With very few exceptions, the cuts date from 1925 to 1932; and within that group, nearly all are early electrics. This means that they exhibit the greater sensitivity and much broader frequency response of the newly invented microphone. The sound is more lifelike, the singers having more presence, and the results provide an excellent opportunity to sample at least a few aspects of the French school of singing before it was greatly reduced by World War II.
Sadly, the extensive liner notes focus on summaries of the eight operettas, and solely in French. There?s a short, generalized English-language essay on early recordings of Messager, and commendable details (recording date, release number, matrix number) for each musical selection. Not a word, however, is said about the individual singers; and that?s a shame, because some of them are inordinately good. Here?s a brief sampler of a few of the singers you?ll find in this set, by no means all of the best, along with some opinions of my own:
David Devriès (
: ?Oui, de rimes je fais moisson?) was an exceptional French lyric tenor, one of the best of an extraordinarily talented group in the first three decades of the century. He had exemplary vocal production and flexibility (his ?Ecco ridente?
Barber of Seville
has elaborate, confident coloratura) accompanied by an unusually warm tone for a French tenor. The flicker vibrato might put some off, but there?s no denying the honeyed sound and the serious art of this singer.
Lucien Fugère (
: ?Trop lourd est le poids du veuvage m?a dit le Roi?) exhibits a short top and a complete lack of chest resonance. What Cascavelle doesn?t point out is that Fugère was an astonishing 78 years old when he made this recording, drawn from a role he?d premiered 38 years before, in 1890; and that he continued to perform and record opera for another several years. (?I shall never retire,? he once told an interviewer. ?It brings on old age, you know.?) On a recording of ?Ah! Quel plaisir? from Paer?s
Le maitre de chapelle
(Symposium CD 1125), he exhibits fast, perfectly fluid runs that are a delight. We don?t get that from his Messager, but we do get wonderfully fluid characterization, a responsive voice, and a marvelous comic, spirited portrayal.
Georges Thill (
: ?J?aimais la vielle maison grise?) is deservedly considered by many the finest lyrico-spinto among French tenors. A rock-solid tone, superb breath control, and an impression of strength carefully weighed through the sensibility of a first-rate musician: these are the qualities Thill brings to his recordings.
Yvonne Printemps (
Les années folles
: ?J?ai deux amants?) was married to the great French film and stage actor Pierre Fresnay. (He?s probably best known for playing Marius in the
, and Captain de Boeldieu in
. Both are available on DVD. Buy them. Now.) She displayed a mixture of styles, the traditional French operatic virtues shading over into popular chanson, just as Messager?s operettas were adapting to changing times. Her energy, communicability, and bright, attractive voice all easily survive these aged discs.
Ninon Vallin (
: ?Lorsque je n?etais qu?une enfant?). The typically forward French vocal production of the period was merciless in exposing problems of intonation, breathing, enunciation, register shift, etc. Vallin was one of the very few who always passed the test with flying colors, and she did so fearlessly, without shirking any of the difficulties of the music she recorded. Her incomparable, perfectly even tone is on excellent display in this selection.
Roger Bourdin (
Coups de roulis
: ?En amour il n?est pas de grade?), a high baritone, is probably best remembered for his fine performances in operatic recordings of the late 1940s and 1950s, such as Docteur Miracle in the 1948 Cluytens
Les contes d?Hoffmann
, and Valentin in Beecham?s 1948
. This 1932 cut, a march, puts the spotlight to his ringing, tenor-like tone and vivid enunciation.
Personally, I?m more amenable to the CD featuring the earlier operettas, but there remains much to enjoy on the other. With very little Messager to be had elsewhere, this set is both an excellent introduction to his art, and to that of the some of very distinguished vocalists, indeed.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Véronique: Excerpt(s) by André Messager
Lemichel Du Roy (Soprano),
Robert Burnier (Voice),
Edmée Favart (Voice)
Written: 1898; France
La basoche: Aria(s) by André Messager
Lucien Fugère (Baritone),
Etienne Billot (Bass),
André Baugé (Baritone),
Miguel Villabella (Tenor)
Written: 1890; Paris, France
Fortunio: Aria(s) by André Messager
Louis Arnoult (Tenor),
Ninon Vallin (Soprano)
Written: 1907; France
L'Amour masqué: Excerpt(s) by André Messager
Yvonne Printemps (Soprano),
Sacha Guitry (Voice)
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