A French Delicacy Discovered: Andrée Esposito
L’Objet du Désir
Back in the pre-youtube days (yes, a mere 5+ years ago), presumably in one of my crusty old opera books, I came across this photo of a french diva who performed to acclaim from the mid-50’s through 70’s. I remember being smitten, and trying to imagine experiencing a great lyric soprano, in this case as Thaïs, in such an alluring, voluptuous package (my feminine ideal, which I wish would return to favor). I also stood in disbelief of the costume, which could hold its own even among today’s drag best, and would still be considered shocking on the stage of any international opera house. This exotic, statuesque vision was one Andrée Esposito.
Somehow she only reentered my radar last week. I’ve been transfixed since, exploring her art on youtube. Yes, she had much more than just a beautiful physique. Her elegant phrasing and on-the-breath tonality bears more than a slight resemblance to another of my favored divas, Eleanor Steber. One can also hear flashes of Sills’ attack and brightness, but none of her acidity or tonal pressing. This is impassioned, fully committed, unforgettable singing, and particularly idiomatic in her native french.
She embodies all the finest qualities of the french operatic style: a ringing, well supported column of sound, and the perfect dose of taut tonal nasality. But, unlike Steber, who sometimes stepped over into a matronly firmness of tone, Andrée, while having thrust, never muscles past a girlish vulnerability. So many of the quintessential french divas of mid-century (ie: Vallin, Robin) offer too brittle or bright a sound for my ears, and one which feels more caricaturish and less human. Andrée offers the best of their qualities, but balanced with a cool smoothness more pleasing, and realness more affecting to my modern ears.
An Overview: Her Life & Career
She was born (February 7, 1934) in Algiers, Algeria, into a family of French-Italian origin. She completed her studies at the Paris Music Conservatory, where she was a pupil of Louis Noguéra and Charles Panzéra.
Andrée was then quickly invited to all the major opera houses of France, including the Paris Opéra-Comique, singing the standard French light lyric repertory: Olympia, Philline, Mireille, Micaela, Leila, and Lakmé. She made her debut at the Paris Opéra in 1959, as Violetta. Other roles there included Rosina, Lucia, Gilda, Xenia, Marguerite, Juliette, Manon, Thaïs. She also enjoyed singing Rosalinda and Hanna. She was also a very active recitalist.
Andrée was married to French baritone Julien Haas, with whom she often appeared on stage, the two were also active as voice teachers at the Strasbourg Music Conservatory. (Wikipedia)
A Video Sampling
These videos are some of her finest offerings available online (do NOT miss “La Chanson perpétuelle” below). Both the Mireille and Manon duos are with the elegant, tender french lyric tenor Alain Vanzo.
“Oses venir, toi qui braves Vénus!,” from Massenet’s Thaïs
With Andrée as the courtesan Thaïs, this recording (french radio, 1959) also features the magnificent Robert Massard as Athanaël, a Cenobite monk, and tenor Jean Mollien, as the nobleman Nicias. Albert Wolff conducts.
“Dis moi que je suis belle,” from Massenet’s Thaïs
As an aside, it’s stunning to me how very Wagnerian some of the orchestration in this scene sounds (ie: from 0:18 through 1:55). My sense was quickly confirmed at this link. Massenet had a visceral reaction to Wagner, at a Bayreuth performance of Parsifal, where a critic observed: ‘He quivered feverishly, became short-breathed, and his large, sombre eyes sparkled in the dark. And when the opera was over, I heard him say to someone in the corridors of the theatre “Ah! I am anxious to return to Paris to burn my Werther!”’ Thaïs was composed almost a decade later. And, this influence was not only on Massenet, but other French composers of the time: “…all too many of whom had sacrificed native qualities in vain, sterile imitations of Wagner.”
“Depuis le jour,” from Charpentier’s Louise
I NEVER thought I’d find a recording of this that surpassed La Price’s. I also prize Zeani’s, Steber’s, and Lorengar’s, but this may take the cake. It is both contemplative and sexy at the same time, weaving the perfect trance of love. Enjoy a translation here.
“O Magali ma bien-aimée,” from Gounod’s Mireille
Duo de St. Sulpice, from Massenet’s Manon
“La Chanson perpétuelle,” (Song Without End), by Ernest Chausson
I have always treasured Von Stade’s recording of this beautiful chanson, but this is even more plaintive and tender. The piece is, for me, like the transcendent, french art song equivalent of Strauss’ Four Last Songs. Enjoy a translation here.
“Air de Phryné,” by Camille Saint-Saëns