Coda: Suddenly It's Printemps


Coda Printemps hdl 514
Younger than springtime: Printemps as Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux Camélias, 1934
© Photos 12/Alamy 2014

I was introduced to Yvonne Printemps by her two husbands.

The introductions happened separately, at just about the same time, when I was still in college. I think Pierre Fresnay's was first; I'd recently met him in the moving guise of the aristocratic Captain de Boeldieu in La Grande Illusion,Jean Renoir's great antiwar film of 1937. I trekked to the library (as one did back then) to learn more about Fresnay and discovered in a list of his threescore and more other films two titles with intriguing operatic resonance — La Dame aux Camélias (1934) and Adrienne Lecouvreur (1938). In both, his leading lady was his third — and most enduring — wife, a musical-comedy star named Yvonne Printemps. 

As I recall, it wasn't long after that first encounter that I bought a double-LP set called Prima Donna in Paris,with Régine Crespin singing one disc of familiar French opera arias, another of French operetta pieces that I mostly didn't know. Among the latter was the catchy "J'ai deux amants," from L'Amour Masqué; and my research this time around revealed that André Messager's music was set to a text by one Sacha Guitry, a Parisian theatrical polymath who wrote this opérette,as he did many others,as a vehicle for the second of his five wives — Yvonne Printemps. 

What could I do but get to know her, too? I started with "J'ai deux amants" (appropriately, I thought, though beyond her two husbands — Guitry the first; Fresnay, till his death did them part after forty years, the second — I wasn't sure how many lovers she could justly claim). What surprised me was how well she stacked up to Crespin. The great Régine — not, in 1970, in one of her better years — is sui generis: to love her is to forgive her almost any trespass. But Printemps's account was so much lighter and smoother, more gently vibrant, more chicly, insinuatingly tart — idiomatic in just the way one might expect from the creator of the role (she's called simply "Elle") and the muse of the piece's two creators. 

With its repeated lament that men are such beasts, "J'ai deux amants" strongly echoes a famous air from La Périchole,"Mon Dieu, que les hommes sont bêtes!" In a delicious scene from the très capricieux biopic La Valse de Paris (1950), an exasperated Hortense Schneider (Printemps) utters those words to her muse-mad maestro, Jacques Offenbach (Fresnay, in a remarkably convincing impersonation), who marches to the piano to improvise that splendid number, the two of them joining in an object lesson in visual and vocal Gallic charm — and also, by the way, one of the few even vaguely believable cinematic examples of spontaneous musical inspiration. The stellar Schneider was thirty-five when she created the title role; Printemps was fifty-five when she made the movie. Was she any less the charmer? There's no aural evidence of the former's seductive prowess, but I don't hesitate to venture an animé "Non!" 

Printemps was no linguist: she sang very little outside her native French. That didn't matter to Noël Coward, who adored her (though very differently from Guitry and Fresnay): for him, she was "the epitome of that so often misapplied word 'Star' … the true, authentic article from the top of her head to the soles of her feet." He fashioned his Conversation Piece (1934) for her, with Fresnay (who'd recently succeeded Guitry offstage) coaching her in English and eventually succeeding Coward as her onstage leading man. "Although she is speaking English," Brooks Atkinson wrote in TheNew York Times after the Broadway premiere, "it is not English that one can readily sort from her French." It's still there to be heard, and wondered at, in her delectable recording (with Coward) of the show's big hit, "I'll Follow My Secret Heart." 

"Delectable" is a perfect adjective for Printemps, just as "Printemps" is the perfect name for the vernal-fresh sound and style of this magical artist, who came into the world as Yvonne Wigniolle but was quickly, aptly nicknamed by her early stage colleagues. She was just twenty when Guitry "discovered" her, and for most of the next two decades she was his wife and his inspiration. Among the vehicles he custom-built for her was Mozart (1925), in which, to music by Reynaldo Hahn, she played, in breeches, the young composer. In a 1929 recording of its "Air de la lettre," she sustains one of the most beguiling long-held notes imaginable. That same year, she and Guitry recorded the Act II finale of his Mariette,with music by Oscar Straus, in which Prince Louis-Napoléon invites an initially reluctant title heroine to supper: five minutes of blissful badinage are followed by the loveliest of vocalises and a bewitching variety of inflections of the word "Non" — until a final, acquiescent "Oui!" closes the act in sweet surrender. 

By the 1950s, Printemps's springtime was fading into belated autumn. The age of Messager and Hahn, with their strong roots in the nineteenth century, and even of the still-living Guitry and Oscar Straus, had wound down. When Francis Poulenc and Jean Anouilh wrote "Les Chemins de l'Amour" for her in 1940, it was a valentine to a passing era of French music and theater and a greeting to a new one — and before long, that era would be gone, too. The enduring joy of Yvonne Printemps is that she so perfectly captured hers, which spanned them both. spacer

PATRICK DILLON is the New York correspondent for Opera Canada and Scherzo (Madrid) and a regular contributor to OPERA NEWS. 

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