Here are some pictures of the finest French singers on record.
Hopefully, you’ll already have some of their recordings.
LUCIEN FUGERE (1848-1935), the great actor-baritone who, unbelievably, was still on stage and recording in 1930, his lyric-light voice seemingly untouched by time!
He created the Father in LOUISE among other roles.
The great actor-baritone VICTOR MAUREL (1848-1923), here seen as DON GIOVANNI, created both of Verdi’s late Shaksperian baritone roles, Iago in OTELLO and the title role in FALSTAFF. He also created Tonio in Leoncavallo’s PAGLIACCI. He survived long enough to record a little of his art, despite being past his best.
AGUSTARELLO AFFRE (1858-1931) was ‘discovered’ some time after his début, finally re-emerging opposite Melba at the Paris Opéra in LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR. His was a voice big enough to be compared with that of Tamagno’s. If he lacked that great singer’s artistry, he was nevertheless was admired by Massenet and had a long career, recording a great deal, especially early on, for Pathé.
ALBERT VAGUET (1865-1943), who seemed to be the leading tenor at Pathé’s studios just around the turn of the century, had actually retired from the stage (at 38) by the time he recorded, his début having traken place in 1890 at L’Opéra in Paris, in the title role of FAUST. Nevertheless, this was a fine lyric-dramatic, typically French tenor with phrasing and artistry of the highest calibre and his records are well worth acquiring if you can play Pathés.
A singer’s singer!
CHARLES GILIBERT (1866-1910), this fine baritone who died so young is perhaps heard best on the ground-breaking 1903 USA Columbia series of 78s.
JEAN LASSALLE (1847-1909), fine 19th century baritone lived just long enough to make some rare recordings, demonstrating the artistry of a forgotten age.
HIPPOLYTE BELHOMME (1854-1923), like so many other French singers, confined most of his career to one theatre; in this case L’Opéra-Comique in Paris, where he sang for 37 years. If not a truly great singer, he was a highly accomplished bass-baritone with many bel-canto skills and his large number of Pathé recordings are very impressive.
POL PLANCON (1854-1910), Belgian bass, was one of the first gramophone celebrities. His smooth bel-canto technique boasted a trill that outshone many a soprano, while his rich deep voice recorded beautifully through the Victor horn.
Here he is seen both in and out of costume
(Saint-Bris in LES HUGUENOTS).
HENRI ALBERS (1866-1925), although thought of as a French baritone, was actually Dutch, equally able to sing in his own language as in French. Despite enjoying a high reputation in Paris, his Pathé records , though thoroughly professional, do not suggest he was anything exceptional as a singer.
JEAN NOTÉ (1859-1922), born in Belgium, was a rival of Renaud and Albers in Paris, yet, despite a more attractive voice, was likewise not perhaps quite a great baritone. Nevertheless, his Pathés are well worth getting hold of.
MARCEL JOURNET (1867-1933) was Plancon’s rival at the Metropolitan. He went on to create Simon Mago in Boito’s NERONE and to record into the electric era. Here, he is shown as Mephistopheles in Gounod’s FAUST.
France seemed to excel in actor-singers. Chaliapin very much appreciated MAURICE RENAUD (1861-1933) as a stage-interpretor. Although his records do not suggest an exceptional voice he used it with great style and was a leading baritone in France for a long time.
The Belgian-born baritone HECTOR DUFRANNE (1871-1951) enjoyed a long career, beginning in 1896 in Bruxelles and ending in Vichy in 1939. Though based mainly in France, taking part in several Massenet premiers, he also sang in the USA. He recorded for G&T, Zonophone, HMV and Columbia, even taking part in some electric complete-opera recordings for them.
Another great actor-singer was the bass-baritone JEAN-ÉMILE VANNI-MARCOUX (1877-1962). He was actually born in Turin, but to French parents. Here, he is seen as the father in LOUISE and, by contrast, as Méphistopheles in FAUST..
On record, he was usually referred to by his surname alone.
The posthumous reputation of French singers has often been limited by their lack of recordings except for the hill & dale Pathés. Such is the case for the lyric-coloratura soprano MARIE THIERY (1875-1918), who, despite the above somewhat masculine costume, was the first to sing the role of Mimi in Bruxelles, sang regularly at L’Opéra-Comique in Paris between 1900-1910 and recorded for Pathé.
EMMA CALVÉ (1852-1942) was one of the inimitable CARMENs with a voice that seemed capable of both mezzo and soprano roles. Smooth and creamy, it recorded well, too. Indeed, her Pathés and HMVs are superb even though she only began to record when over 50, at first insisting to sing in costume in front of the horn. She created Suzel in Mascagni’s L’AMICO FRITZ and was also a renowned Santuzza in his CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA.
The French mezzo-soprano, MARIE DELNA (née Ledan) (1875-1932), studied with Calvé’s teacher. She may have lacked the passion of an Italian, but her singing is beautifully smooth, refined and is highly impressive on her Pathé recordings. She enjoyed considerable success during her career, mainly in Paris (1892-1914), but she died in poverty.
ALINE VALLENDRI (1878-1952), a fine lyric-soprano, spent her entire 25 year career at L’Opéra-Comique in Paris, where she made her debut in 1904 and sang alongside some of the finest singers of her day. Hers was the Gilda in Pathé’s complete RIGOLETTO of 1912. Indeed, almost all of her recordings were for this company and the inherent technical problems of playing their non-standard records, may explain why her voice is so little known today.
Another of the more interesting half-forgotten sopranos who recorded with Pathé at the beginning of the 20th century was MARGUERITE MERENTIÉ (1880-????). Her fine, rich soprano voice had definite hints of the mezzo in its tonal pallette. She created Ariane in Massenet’s SALLAMBO and participated in Pathé’s complete recording of the opera as well as their CARMEN. Her re-discovery by record-collectors is well overdue.
MARTHE CHENAL (1881-1947) had other attractions apart from a fine lyric soprano voice. Before her operatic career, she had performed at the Moulin Rouge and her touch of bump and grind when playing CARMEN, could shock audiences of those days. Though possibly not one of the greats of her day, she was still a singer of quality and enjoyed a 20 year career. Her records (Pathé) are still very listenable.
YVONNE GALL (1885-1972) was one of the finest lyric sopranos of her time, though the voice had a little extra weight that enabled her to sing a wider range of roles than one might have expected. From 1908 and for 20 years, she performed with some of the finest artists in the wrold including Chaliapin. She also recorded prolifically. From her acoustic Pathés, including an early complete ROMEO ET JULIETTE in 1912, to a fine set of electrical recordings in the late 20s, all are well worth acquiring.
The Belgian-born FANNY HELDY (1888-1973) again proved that French audiences liked their sopranos beautiful in face and figure as well as in voice. In Paris, she was simply an idol. Hers was a rich, high lyric-soprano of high-quality, with a spinto edge. She too recorded a complete acoustic opera for Pathé (MANON), but any of her records, acoustic or electric are well worth seeking out.
NINON VALLIN (1886-1961), one of the finest French lyric-sopranos of the electric era, was as famous in Buenos Aires as in Paris. Her many records from acoustic Pathés onwards, not to mention her long distinguished career all demonstrate what a high-class artist she was.
EIDE NORENA (1884-1948) was born in Oslo and died in Lausanne, but nevertheless, is somehow thought of as a French-school lyric-coloratura soprano. As Kaja Eide, she recorded on Swedish HMV, but also recorded for French Pathe, HMV and Odeon. These later recordings are easy to acquire. Her 30-year career was truly international, taking her all over europe and to the USA.
VICTOR CAPOUL (1839-1924). This famous tenor was among the very earliest singers to record. At almost 70 he may have been way past his best, but we still hear the style that made his name in a lost era.
ERNEST VAN DYCK (1861-1923). Despite his Flemish name, this Belgian tenor was very much a product of the French school of singing. Although known as a Wagnerian, he added romance to the singing of Wagner’s music. He also created Massenet’s WERTHER and was one of the first singers to record.
EDMOND CLÉMENT (1867-1928). One of the best and most refined of the French school of lyric-tenors, here seen as Don José and Rodolfo. His red-seal Victors, alone and with Farrar, have earnt him a deserved high reputation with record-collectors.
CHARLES DALMORES (1871-1939), another fine French tenor.
LÉON ESCALAIS (1859-1941). This smallish bulldog of a man was nevertheless a rival of the great Tamagno with an amazing heroic tenor voice still available to us on his rare records. He sang mainly in Paris, Milan and Bruxelles.
MIGUEL VILLABELLA (1892-1954), as the name suggests, was not born in France, but made his career there. Taught by the great Lucien Fugere and having fought in World War One, he had a distinguished career which ended in 1940, after which he taught singing. The voice which was of a weight and charm that brings Schipa to mind was most artistically used and is preserved on Odeon and Pathe recordings.
GEORGES THILL (1897-1984) was the last of the great French tenors yet, paradoxically sang more like an Italian lyrico-spinto, probably because he had studied with the legendary Fernando De Lucia before his debut in 1924.