Close Enough to Perfect
April 23, 2018
There is no such thing as perfection in singing, and no limit on how much better something might conceivably be, so let's start by trying to name a fault in this 1922 recording from Massenet's Grisélidis by Louis Cazette. Maybe you could say that the top B-flat at the end of the middle section is a little pinched (but it'll do!). Or, if you follow the score, you could point out that its detailed dynamics are not always followed scrupulously.
I can't imagine anybody being in the mood to insist on objections while under the spell of the singing, though. Beautiful tone from softest to loudest, classically chiseled and poetic French pronunciation, utter poise in handling the "passaggio" area of the tenor voice in every imaginable shade of color and dynamic - and all of this is put at the service of a rare ability to create atmosphere through word and tone. (This version of the Griseldis legend is too complicated to explain here, but the aria is sung by the heroine's lost shepherd-boy lover, or rather a vision of him conjured up by the devil to tempt her into infidelity. You'd think it would work.)
Why don't we hear more about Cazette? He was born in 1887, joined the army as a young man, and though he had already begun serious vocal study, quickly returned to uniform to serve in the First World War. So his debut was delayed to 1919. Then in 1922, during a performance of Don Giovanni at the Opéra-Comique, he was accidentally nicked by a colleague's rapier-point, contracted tetanus, and died within days. All we have to remember him by is a painfully short list of ten 78-rpm records.
The point about those sometimes-ignored markings in the score, meanwhile, raises the question of whether it is a good idea for a composer to micro-manage the musicality of the interpreter. Cazette's singing is superbly nuanced and varied - but he's following his own expressive path to the details, not translating a diagram. Not counting slurs, Massenet provides 81 dynamics, verbal instructions, or articulation markings within three pages. In the entire third act of Tristan Wagner gives his tenor four crescendos, two dynamic signs, and two accent marks. Food for thought.
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.