26 January 2016
French Soprano Denise Duval, 94, Muse to Poulenc, Has Died
Duval and composer Francis Poulenc
Manceaux Photographe/OPERA NEWS Archives
Paris, October 23, 1921 — Bex, Switzerland, January 25, 2016
DENISE DUVAL didn't set out to be a muse. In 1947, as a freshly engaged contract singer, she was rehearsing Madama Butterfly at Paris’s Opéra Comique when a voice bellowed from the darkened auditorium, “That’s the soprano I need!” It was Francis Poulenc, in search of a leading lady for his new comic opera, Les Mamelles de Tirésias. In his frustrated state, he’d likely have settled for almost any suitable singer; instead, he’d just found his ideal. For the next sixteen years — until the end of his life — Denise Duval was his colleague, his friend, his inspiration.
She was born a Parisienne — on October 23, 1921 — but initially her residence there was short-lived. Her father was a military man, and she was raised in Indochina, Senegal and China before the family settled in Bordeaux. It was at the Bordeaux Conservatoire that she began her serious study of music and drama; and it was with the Bordeaux Opéra that she made her professional stage debut, in 1943, as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. Over her next two years there, she graduated to a wide range of roles better suited to her lean, pointed, typically Gallic lyric soprano — Marguerite in Faust, Mimì, Micaela, Mélisande, Thaïs, and the one that became an early calling-card, Cio-Cio-San. In 1945, Duval traveled to Paris for an audition at the Opéra — and wound up, through a chain of fortuitous connections, with a year’s contract at the Folies-Bergère, where night after night, discreetly costumed, she sang “Un bel dì” and a Chopin song. “My parents were thunderstruck, and my teacher nearly had a stroke,” she recalled years later.
As Blanche de la Force in the French premiere
of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites, in 1957
OPERA NEWS Archives
The Opéra and the Opéra Comique finally beckoned, and she made her debut at the bigger house, as Salomé in Hérodiade, and at its smaller sibling in that career-changing Butterfly. When the frothy, satirical Mamelles had its premiere, in June 1947 — incongruously, after an already full evening of Tosca — it was “booed, insulted and hissed,” Duval remembered. But like so many other Parisian theatrical scandals, it quickly became an event, and Poulenc soon was writing to a friend, “I have an unbelievable Thérèse who is stunning Paris with her beauty, her gifts as an actress and her voice.” Before long, the model-slim soprano was being photographed sporting Christian Dior’s then-novel “New Look” — and even (by the gossipy Poulenc) being linked with Dior romantically. Her career blossomed further at both the Opéra and the Comique, where in 1949 she created another role, Francesca in Reynaldo Hahn’s posthumously staged Le Oui des Jeunes Filles. In 1952 and 1953, for EMI, she made her first recordings, as Concepción in L’Heure Espagnole and as Thérèse in Mamelles. Her professional itinerary broadened its reach to Monte Carlo, Milan, Aix, Cologne and Florence. But she didn’t hit full stride until 1957, when, at the Opéra, she sang in the French-language premiere of Dialogues des Carmélites, as Blanche, a role Poulenc wrote for her and one she memorably committed to disc on EMI’s still unsurpassed original-Paris-cast recording. In 1959, she scored a still more indelible success as Elle in the premiere (at the Comique) of La Voix Humaine, the Jean Cocteau monodrama couture-tailored to her talents by Poulenc. (“He’d been through a sticky patch in his love life…. I’d just dumped a man I’d loved for eight years.”) In 1960, she repeated that triumph for the opera’s British debut (at Edinburgh, with Glyndebourne forces) and its American premiere, as half of an American Opera Society double bill with Mamelles at Carnegie Hall. The latter stirred the Times’s Howard Taubman to write, “It is difficult to imagine a more convincing and more affecting performance than Miss Duval’s.” It led, too, to her Dallas Civic Opera debut in 1961, in an elaborate Thaïs directed by Franco Zeffirelli (“I was brought in on a platter by two Nubian slaves”), just as the Edinburgh engagement prompted a two-summer run at Glyndebourne as Mélisande. A broadcast of the second-year revival, from 1963, was issued on official Glyndebourne CDs.
But Poulenc had died earlier that year, and Duval never quite rallied. Following what turned out to be the last of her dozens of performances of Blanche, in Buenos Aires in 1965, she collapsed from a cortisone overdose and essentially retired from singing. After a lengthy recovery, she taught at the École Française de Musique and occasionally directed. But she left two treasured mementos of those latter years — a 1970 film (by director Dominique Delouche) of La Voix Humaine, in which she gives a riveting lip-synched performance to her own classic recording of a decade earlier; and a master class captured by Delouche in 1998, in which, still très soignée at seventy-seven, she remains the Elle with whom all her successors must reckon. “I’m proud that my name will always be connected with [Poulenc’s],” she once said. The man who called her “my Duval” would surely have returned the compliment. —Patrick Dillon
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