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Lend Me a Tenor

Jules Massenet is celebrated for his creation of great soprano vehicles. This month, as the Met adds its new Laurent Pelly production of Manon to its Live in HD series, HUGH MACDONALD looks at some of Massenet's great roles for tenors.

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Lucien Muratore (1876—1954), who created roles in three Massenet premieres
Mishkin/Metropolitan Opera Archives
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Edmond Clément (1867–1928), described by the composer as "superbe et vibrant," as des Grieux
Dupont photo/Francis Robinson Collection/OPERA NEWS Archives
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Jean-Alexandre Talazac (1851–96), the first des Grieux in Manon
© akg-images 2012

Massenet is sometimes described as having a "weakness" for the female voice, inferring that he sympathized most strongly with the sentimental, suffering type of lady that we recognize in those ill-fated heroines Manon and Thaïs. But we are wrong to overlook the special care he took in writing for men, and for favoring particular male singers. Lucien Fugère, for instance, was a baritone whose voice enchanted Massenet. He sang in the premieres of Cendrillon, Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame, Le Portrait de Manon and Grisélidis and in the Paris premiere of Don Quichotte, and after 1890 he was always Massenet's choice to sing Comte des Grieux in Manon. In any case, unlike Mozart, Massenet wrote most of his scores without knowing who the singers were to be, even sometimes which theater was to stage them. Being a composer of exceptional facility, he was ready to start the next opera as soon as the last one was completed, so all he needed was a libretto to set to work. 

Massenet enormously admired Wagner and Verdi but always stayed true to his French inheritance. Berlioz, Gounod and Thomas were his most admired models. Vocal writing had been the central concern of the Paris Conservatoire's teaching since its foundation, and in following in those honored footsteps and learning exactly what the different voices could and could not do, Massenet completed his own training and honed the skills that gave us some of the greatest opera roles of his time. 

What about his tenors? The tenors who sang in the premieres of his operas are mostly only names to us now, with the exception of Jean de Reszke, who sang John the Baptist when Hérodiade came to Paris in 1884 and took the title role in Le Cid at its premiere in 1885. If Massenet had a favorite tenor, it was Lucien Muratore, a French tenor who sang the leads in three Massenet premieres — Ariane, Bacchus and Roma, none of them more than marginally familiar to modern audiences. Bruce Carvell, a formidable authority on the singers of that age, describes Muratore's singing as having lyric elegance and a great sense of style with a hint of spinto. His voice is preserved on record. The other tenors to create Massenet's leading roles were Jules-Alexandre Bosquin (Marie-Magdeleine), Marius Salomon (Roi de Lahore), Edmond Vergnet (Hérodiade and Le Mage), Frédéric-Étienne Gibert (Esclarmonde), Albert Alvarez (La Navarraise), Adolphe Maréchal (Grisélidis), Julien Leprestre (Sapho) and Edmond Clément (Thérèse). The last four of these made recordings, and Clément, whom Massenet described as "superbe et vibrant," was widely regarded as the greatest French lyric tenor of his generation. 

These are the more heroic roles, but in the Massenet canon, des Grieux and Werther are the ones today's tenors are most often called on to impersonate, both roles calling for lyric voices of fine sensibility. The original des Grieux was Jean-Alexandre Talazac, whose home was the Opéra Comique (where he also created the roles of Hoffmann, Gérald in Lakmé and Mylio in Le Roi d'Ys), never the Opéra. He could hardly be imagined singing Wagner, yet the original Werther was Ernest Van Dyck, a Belgian tenor whose repertoire encompassed the roles of des Grieux and Siegfried.

Tenors in French opera had been thrown into confusion in 1837 by Duprez's famous chest high C in Guillaume Tell, a ringing sound that made Nourrit's elegant upper range seem très démodé. Yet the thrill of that new voice (which Rossini compared to the sound of a capon having its throat cut) never won complete acceptance in France; it is the "voix mixte" that most often suits the French repertoire, rather than the heroic tenor required in Verdi or the weighty sound of Wagner. Massenet never abandoned his attachment to the lyric tenor voice, never writing below E or above high B (except with an option). Even in his grand operas, which present massed choruses, offstage brass and the full resources of the Paris Opéra, a tenor of less than stentorian volume can always be heard. This is because Massenet understood voices to the point where, contrary to a tradition imparted by the Conservatoire (based on the belief that singers are incorrigible), every vocal nuance is marked in his scores, and because his experience as a timpanist at the Théâtre Lyrique had taught him the imperatives of an orchestral technique that allows voices to be heard. 

In Hérodiade, for example, John the Baptist denounces the title character with a ringing threefold "Jézabel!" but thereafter is more reflective and tender. This role was admirably sung by Ben Heppner on the 1995 recording from Toulouse, especially in the monologue and duet in Act IV. This is not a particularly demanding part, but Le Cid, not surprisingly, needs a more warlike sound in the role of Rodrigue. This is the Massenet role that really suits Plácido Domingo, who has sung it in New York and Washington and is truly effective in the recording under Eve Queler, especially in the Act III duet with Grace Bumbry. Domingo recorded Manon early in his career and Werther twice, but despite his long history of singing French lyric roles and his unfailing musicality, he always sounds to me like a Verdi tenor. 

At least he does not Italianize the role of des Grieux, as does Pavarotti in his La Scala recording of 1969 — and even he is less swoopy and scoopy than Carreras singing "Ô souverain, ô juge, ô père," from Le Cid, on one of the Three Tenors concert discs. The only commercial recording of Esclarmonde has Giacomo Aragall in the role of Roland, one of Massenet's great creations, which, although secondary to the sensational writing for Esclarmonde herself, progresses in masterly fashion from passive pawn to passionate lover to champion. Well matched with Joan Sutherland in their great duets, Aragall nevertheless allows his Spanish–Italian vowels to mar some otherwise fine singing.

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Alfredo Kraus, an incomparable Werther, at San Francisco Opera in 1985
© Ron Scherl 2012

It is impossible to resist the choice of the two great lyric tenors of their generation, Alfredo Kraus and Nicolai Gedda, for des Grieux and Werther. Kraus appears on at least five recordings of Manon and at least a dozen recordings of Werther (some of these being pirates of live performances) under a dozen different conductors. Has any singer ever so completely possessed a role as this? Kraus himself felt that Werther was the heaviest role in his repertoire. "When I am asked what kind of voice is right for Werther," he wrote, "my answer is: 'One which can portray the personality and express all the vocal subtleties and nuances in the role.'" 

He may be said to have done precisely that in his long career. As for nuances, he is always true to Massenet's clearly expressed phrasing and dynamics, especially the pianissimos, which tenors too often disregard. Kraus conveys Werther's battered heart with such poignancy that the character and the music become one. To trace his devoted journey through this role would be a long and delicate undertaking, but in the case of Manon, his earliest version — dating from 1973 under Jean Fournet — is firmly considered by Jean-Louis Dutronc in his Manon discography to be the best. 

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Nicolai Gedda, des Grieux in the Met's 1963 production
Louis Mélançon/OPERA NEWS Archives

Devotees of the purest stylishness among French tenors will surely go back to Georges Thill, whose 1931 recording of Werther set the standard. Alain Vanzo is often mentioned as another Frenchman who sang Massenet with particular understanding. The best Massenet lyric tenors in recent years, in succession to Kraus and Gedda — notably Marcelo Álvarez and Jonas Kaufmann — have not been French. Everyone assumes that despite his superb recent video recording of Werther under Michel Plasson (an excellent Massenet conductor) Kaufmann will inevitably move on to the bigger Wagner roles, but it would be a shame if he could not explore the weightier Massenet roles instead, perhaps Jean in Sapho or Armand in Thérèse, and then perhaps Le Cid.

The problem with Massenet has always been to deflect the charge of frailty and what Oscar Wilde described as "endless false alarms of a real melody." French music has too often been dismissed as willowy and bloodless, lacking the robust constitution of Verdi or Wagner. Even when directed at Fauré or Debussy, the charge is unfounded, but it is even more so in the case of Massenet, whose prime concern was the delineation of character and action, and whose high craftsmanship guided him unerringly toward that goal. Strong action required strong music; delicacy of emotion required a comparable subtlety in the setting. Some singers in French repertoire can be bloodless, it is true: Jean Giraudeau was a maddeningly wimpy Énée. It is no doubt for fear of this charge that singers are tempted to pump up the intensity, as Rolando Villazón clearly does in his video recording of Manon with Anna Netrebko. Roberto Alagna's des Grieux seems similarly to inhabit Puccini's world, rather than Massenet's, despite his impeccable French. Audiences respond favorably to stage intensity, and the emotion at the heart of both Manon and Werther is intense, yet it is unwise to argue with Massenet's seasoned judgment and throw restraint to the winds.

Other types of tenor in Massenet's operas extend the range. The most appealing is that of Jean in LeJongleur de Notre-Dame, the juggler who is humbled by the other monks at Cluny because juggling is his only skill. He is neither comic nor heroic. (The opera's comedy is invested in the monastery's cook, Boniface, a baritone.) The narrow vocal range opens the role up to singing actors perhaps from the world of operetta, which might be the only way to cast a singer who can also juggle, or at least dance or do tricks in a suitably eccentric way. The original singer was Adolphe Maréchal, who had created the roles of Julien in Charpentier's Louise and Alain in Grisélidis. The latter is one of Massenet's most attractive tenor roles. Alain is a shepherd hopelessly in love with Grisélidis, whose husband is away on a crusade. No heroics are called for — just tenderness and rustic simplicity. 

One of the early exponents of the juggler's role was Mary Garden en travesti. Massenet said he was taken aback to see a monk discard the habit and appear after the performance in an elegant gown.Let's say he would have been taken aback, since she only performed this opera in the U.S. In Monte Carlo, Paris and elsewhere in Europe, the role was always taken by a tenor. Par contre, the role of Prince Charming in Cendrillon, written for a "soprano falcon," has sometimes been taken by a tenor, most notably by Gedda on the 1978 recording with Frederica von Stade. Suave and touching though his performance is, the true sweetness of the duet with Cendrillon, "Vous êtes mon Prince Charmant," can be gleaned only from two like voices in close parallel. Realism is hardly a desirable element in any retelling of fairy tales. 

Behind the successful composer constantly composing, publishing, presenting and reviving operas, and traveling all over Europe in the same cause, there lay a man of regular habits who rose early every day to work and devoted his summers to composing and the winter months to teaching. He was, as he freely admitted, a bourgeois artist, never comfortable with Parisian café life, scared of giving speeches, embarrassed by applause and happiest in the bosom of his family. On the surface, Massenet was not a man in whose eyes intense emotion would ever be displayed, but we have only to listen again to "Ah! Fuyez, douce image," in Manon, or "Pourquoi me réveiller," in Werther, sung by the ideal French lyric tenor (fill in the name), to realize that the passion is there, in the music, in full measure. spacer 

HUGH MACDONALD is Avis H. Blewett Professor of Music Emeritus at Washington University, St. Louis. He was general editor of the New Berlioz Edition, which completed publication in 2006. He is currently editing operas by Lalo, Chabrier, Bizet and Thomas for Bärenreiter.  

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