The Tears We Do Not Weep

One of the better bits of operatic poetry is found in Massenet’s Werther, simple verses expressing the simple insight that unwept tears fall inwards and afflict the heart. The heroine Charlotte sings them to her sister and would-be comforter Sophie. As far as I can tell they are not based on anything from Goethe, author of the source novel, so credit is due somewhere within the librettist team of Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann. (The stanzas could seem an answer to the oft-quoted question from the journals of Jules Renard, “what becomes of the tears we do not shed?,” but this was written not long before Renard’s death in 1910; perhaps he was thinking of Werther, which he would have had many chances to hear.) 

Delna as Charlotte (with Guillaume Ibos as Werther)

The aria Massenet fashioned on these two quatrains belongs to a select list of operatic solos that make a lasting impression despite extreme brevity: nothing is “developed,” practically nothing is repeated, nothing draws on material established elsewhere in the score, but the target is struck and the piece stays in the memory. Other examples: Otello’s entrance, Falstaff’s “Quand’ero paggio,” Loris’s “Amor ti vieta,” Serse’s “Ombra mai fu,” Barbarina’s lament over the lost pin - each of which can easily be printed on two pages. 

What makes a successful performance of Charlotte’s Air des larmes, as it quickly came to be called? Massenet provided so much, and wrote it so simply, that a beautiful voice and some heart will get the job done. But there’s no upper limit to how well it could be done, and since the piece is now a standard mezzo audition aria that I hear dozens of times every year, I’m keenly aware of the chinks it can show in a singer’s basic equipment. Ideally, it wants both beauty and a range of dynamics - or at least a sound that manifests the possibility of dynamics - on every note of its modest compass, and it wants the kind of tonal continuity that can let its somber melody speak uninterrupted. It wants an upper F strong enough to serve as a climax but malleable enough to take its place un-emphatically in simple melody, and a chest-voice that can be rich and generous without sounding aggressive. 

This week’s recordings give an idea of how two very different voices approached the ideal in the opera’s early years, and of the kind of interpretation Massenet was used to hearing. Marie Delna, the Charlotte of the first Paris performance in January 1893, recorded the aria on a Pathé cylinder a decade later - just around the time a hugely successful revival was taking place with Jeanne Marié de l’Isle, who remained the most prominent exponent of the role at the Opéra-Comique for the next dozen years and quickly committed long portions of it to primitive disc recordings, including four versions of this solo. 

Delna (1875-1932) was a grand-opera powerhouse who made her Paris debut just before her 17th birthday as Didon in Les troyens à Carthage. The Werther premiere followed within a year, and within another she sang Dame Quickly in the local introduction of Falstaff, rehearsed by Verdi in person. Before arriving, the composer worried (perhaps based on second-hand reports) that her voice was too high for the role, but afterwards he told an interviewer that if he were 20 years younger he would write an opera for Delna. He also requested her, along with Meyrianne Héglon (Record of the Week, May 28 2018), for the Paris premiere of his Pezzi sacri, when the Laudi alla beata vergine was entrusted to four solo voices. (He was obviously no longer concerned about her range; Delna took the deepest part, which goes twice to the F-sharp below the staff.) 

Delna quickly branched out to the Opéra itself; to Orfeo, Dalilah, Fidès, and La favorite; and to Milan, London, and New York. At the Metropolitan her Orfeo was lavishly praised by all except the conductor, Toscanini, with whom she fought (apparently during performances) over his innovation of dictating the soloists’ tempos and rubatos from the pit. Though she sang some high roles early in her career, we think of her today as a contralto, and that is what she sounds like in the air des larmes: a mournful tone that seems always pregnant with power not called into play; a darkness not contrived by distortion of vowels but inherent in the underlying structure of the tone. 


Marié de L'isle as Charlotte

Marié de L’isle was three years older than Delna but a late starter; she was nearly 24 when she sang her first known professional role, and even then she did not storm Paris with a classic heroine, but instead tried out a light operetta part in the intimate theater at Versailles. She came from a family of singers; maybe this made her cautious? Her maternal grandfather had been the original Tonio in La fille du régiment, and three of her aunts were opera singers. One of them was Célèstine Galli-Marié, the first Carmen and Mignon, who took special trouble over Jeanne, hoping her niece could one day take over her own repertory at the Comique - which is exactly what happened. 

She is a very different kind of Charlotte from Delna, and in many ways a precursor of the modern “lyric mezzo.” Everything is lighter and more compact; she seems the more girlish of the two, though she was 32 at the time of recording and Delna was 28.  One thing that stands out: the poignancy of shadings achieved by filing down a firm, body-connected tone (at “Va, laisse couler mes larmesand again at “Les larmes qu’on ne pleure pas” and in the very last line). But Marié de L’isle does not push her interpretive choices to the fore; here, as a critic of the time (Henri de Curzon) said of her in Carmen, “she makes an incredible effect, precisely because she is not aiming for one. She is simple, true, consistently under her character’s skin.”

One thing the two have in common, besides their classically clear pronunciation: The chest notes are 100% at their disposal. They can soften or strengthen them, color them, bind them smoothly to the head voice or let them stand out in contrast, exactly as they please. Once you’ve heard registration approached this way in the aria it is hard to be satisfied with less. (Detail to notice: neither one obeys Massenet’s dynamic markings rigidly, but both do the written diminuendo at “Le s’affaiblit,” which is rarely heard: it is possible only if you have more than one theatrically viable volume level on middle F.) 

Oh, and one other thing: Portamento. Are you perhaps one of the singers who has been told it should be avoided in French music? The French didn’t get the memo. These singers don’t make a big deal out of it, but it is an essential part of their vocal language, in intervals large and small (for instance the falling second at “les larmes qu’on ne pleure pas and the rising one at “martèlent le coeur triste et las). That’s what binds the notes into melody. 

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.