By the rules
May 28, 2018
Sometimes I suspect the interpretation of French song is being taught to students according to rules going something like this:
Pick your way through it very carefully, as though you would catch poison ivy from the slightest misstep.
If you have a strong voice, pretend you don’t.
If the composer wrote a long series of eighth-notes, the desired rhythmic effect is that of a dripping faucet.
No portamento; it sounds too human.
No rubato unless in the form of hesitation.
If after all this the song is still interesting, try it slower and softer.
OK, not fair, I know. Sincere apologies to all devoted teachers of this repertory who don’t try to embalm it. But if you surf through YouTube and Spotify in search of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Rêverie, you could very easily come to the conclusions above, and reinforce them in multiple examples. Unless by chance you happen upon the version of a forgotten French-Belgian mezzo-soprano named Meyriane Héglon (1867-1942), who had only one recording session (in 1903) and whose four known discs had almost no circulation.
Her rules would go something like “read the above, then do the opposite.” The score is here, and following it while listening to Héglon is a great antidote to the restrictive rulebook. She sings spiritedly and in full voice, she's much more inclined to anticipation than to hesitation, she's generous with portamento, and her rhythms are far from literal.
But what would the composer have said?
Héglon had a solid Parisian career in leading roles, and we know that composers liked her. One was Verdi; she sang Emilia when Otello reached the Opéra under his direction, and he requested her for the Paris premiere of the Quattro pezzi sacri. Another was Xavier Leroux, whom she married. Another was Saint-Saëns himself. She sang in several of his operas, and he brought her to the G&T studio in 1903 to accompany her personally in four of his pieces - including this one.
Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples, and click here for some pointers on how to listen.