top : Thomas Hampson, Robert Merrill, Robert Massard, Michel Dens, Martial Singher; bottom: John Charles Thomas, Ernest Blanc, Maurice Renaud
While it is easy to hear of a really fine Russian bass or a brilliant newcomer Italian tenor or a “wait until you hear her” German soprano it is less common to encounter either in conversation or on an operatic stage a really fine French baritone. That most manly of male voices, the baritone is one thing to the Italians and another to the Germans and another to the Russians and surely yet another to the French.
The immense in size and importance French Opera repertoire is largely the domain of a lighter, suppler, more lyrical type of voice. French tenors are unsurpassed interpreters of the key leading male roles in the operas of Massenet, Gounod and the operettas of Offenbach. French lyric-coloratura sopranos are indisputably perfect for Massenet’s Manon and Gounod’s Marguerite and two of the three Offenbach heroines in Les Contes d’Hoffman. But, when it comes to casting the baritone parts in the staple baguette et beurre French operas the managements of American opera companies often settle for whoever is at the top of their rolodex, often going for whoever sings the loudest and never mind style.
The Baryton Martin and the heavier, equally flexible, but more dramatic Baryton Noble are central to the French repertoire. This opinion was reinforced recently as we ”surfed” YouTube coming upon several recordings of one of Herod’s arias in Massenet’s rarely produced gem, Herodiade.
Give it to You Tube regulars to voice their likes and dislikes! When one peruses these various links it is inevitable to read commentaries that range from respectful to rants.
We will refrain from harsh criticisms and from lamenting what is no more. The reality that the chronology of these eight selections evidences is that “they don’t make them that good” anymore. As we listen to the scratchy early electrical recording of Vision Fugitive by Maurice Renaud (1860-1933), made in 1906 ( https://youtu.be/nqjYzPLNwDk ) we are immediately impressed by a voice schooled in the grand 19th century French tradition.
Renaud’s ease of vocal emission, seamless legato, evenness of registers are all three coupled to exemplary diction, with each word of the text given full value. The phrases Ce brevage pourrait me donner un tel rêve … Je pourrais la revoir … contempler sa beauté are sung by Maurice Renaud as if in a drug-induced reverie – which is exactly what Herod is experiencing.
When he moves into the main body of the aria he does so with increasing passion and a drive that leads up to the very difficult climax: Toi mon seul amour…mon espoir for which Massenet gives the baritone an F-Gb challenge on a single syllable. We hear no “cover”, no changing of vocal gears. Renaud then lands the final phrase on a resonant Eb. Good singing from A to Z!
We moved from oldest to most recent in our list of recordings, with Martial Singher (1904-1990) (https://youtu.be/58o0RYINKQw) and Michel Dens (1911-2000) (https://youtu.be/-Wc_V6QFr70) up next. Singher was a fine artist with a keen talent for interpretation, but his vocal equipment does not allow him to surmount the challenges of this aria, whereas Dens, by contrast, a light baritone who made most of his career in Paris and primarily in the Opera Comique world, is able to conquer the assignment by sheer willpower and intelligence.
From that point on we hear the glorious sound of Robert Merrill (1917-2004) (https://youtu.be/SK10DyGA5f4) making the most of the dramatic moments of the aria and a bit later in the list, the all-American John Charles Thomas (1890-1960) in a 1934 recording (https://youtu.be/SZpMgRKblso) in which his struggles with the French pronunciation can be forgiven because of his very beautiful sound. But neither Merrill nor Thomas are exemplary when it comes to the elusive French style and the necessary command of the language, but their magnificent voices make the listener forgive the singers’ sins.
Thomas Hampson in a 2012 recording (https://youtu.be/Ok-qJ_7qDAY ) is actually much better stylistically than either Merrill or Thomas, but his vocalism is not on a par with that of two French baritones born within two years of each other. Ernest Blanc (1923-2010) (https://youtu.be/Qa2JfOUPRXQ) came of age as a singer during WWII and consequently his career never became what his voice and artistry deserved. He sang as a lyric baritone but went on to tackle some of the Wagnerian repertoire (Wolfram, Amfortas, Telramund), and one can detect that in his dark-hued sound.
Robert Massard (b:1925) https://youtu.be/rDM3GlG7vdM sang the Italian repertory with the same panache with which he excelled in the “big” French roles. In this Vision Fugitive he packs vocal beauty, dramatic punch, a great ability for coloring the voice and a marvelous flair for singing pianissimo without manipulating or crooning. A great artist largely unknown in this country but revered by his countrymen, Massard is hands down our favorite.
We hold in our minds a fleeting vision of the arrival of a baritone who regardless of nationality can best the pack in roles as wide ranging as Escamillo, Lescaut, Valentin, Zurga, and the Hoffman villains, and give some enterprising impresario the motivation to mount a new production of Herodiade for him. Here’s hoping.
Rafael de Acha www.Rafael’MusicNotes.com All About the Arts