Meanwhile back in Paris…
Pol Plançon (1851-1914) is one of the few really “early” singers still known to voice buffs in the 21st century (see Record of the Week for March 19, 2018, where we presented a less-familiar version of his most celebrated showpiece). He is best remembered for being a deep bass who could run and trill like a coloratura soprano. That’s how he stood out as a representative of the old-fashioned French school in the English-speaking world. But back home in Paris, where he rarely sang once called to the lucrative rosters of Covent Garden and the Metropolitan, one could have said he runs and trills...like a bass. Or simply like a singer. Because on the recorded evidence, pretty much all French singers of Plançon’s vintage could hold their own with him in this regard, because...
Well, why? French composers on the whole had abandoned “coloratura” and virtuosity even earlier than the Italians, yet their leading artists tended to surpass the native heirs of Bel Canto when it came to technical polish at the dawn of the recorded era. This week’s records are the hearty couplets of Falstaff from Thomas’ Le songe d’une nuit d’été. (Don’t ask what Falstaff is doing in that opera….or Queen Elizabeth.) The main vocal requirement is simply for sturdy tone and vivid, clear diction - but at a fermata in the second verse a spectacular cadenza-with-trill in bel canto style is casually inserted.
Why could French composers count on this from their basses well past the heyday of florid music, and why could the French public count on it later still, decades after the composers had moved on? The likeliest explanation is procedural: French musical life was highly centralized, dominated by Paris and in particular by the graduates of its Conservatory - and the Conservatory was conservative. It maintained strict standards, and ranked its students through competitive examination each year in all fields of study.
At times this was no doubt annoying, and the process must sometimes have favored stolid competence over unruly genius. But widespread competence is a blessing for the community at large. The Paris curriculum did eventually move with the times, but slowly. As late as 1914 Camille Saint-Saëns considered it a scandal that a soprano was allowed to graduate when he had just heard her singing the Queen’s cabaletta from Les Huguenots without an adequate trill. Today we’d want to know who was doing such an unusually good job if five percent of a school’s singers could produce one. Up to a little while before Saint-Saëns’ complaint, it seems 100% of Paris grads could do so - and could sing their scales and arpeggios with despatch too.
But don’t take my word for it; here are three bass alums to speak for themselves (and for the level of competition Plançon had to beat to achieve his pre-eminence): Hippolyte Belhomme (1854-1923), André Gresse (1868-1937), and Paul Aumonier (1872-1944). Aumonier sang the aria in F, the others in its printed key of G. They all won prizes at the Conservatoire - Aumonier in singing, Gresse in opéra-comique, Belhomme in both. In all four cases, second prize, not first - but they still mattered. Aumonier’s was even printed on the containers to hawk some of his early cylinders! But if you wanted to get one, you had to practice.
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.