Opera Album Review: Cyrille Dubois Does French Opera Arias — A Major Release to Treasure

By Ralph P. Locke

French opera arias, many recorded for the first time, by the enchanting tenor Cyrille Dubois. The vocal treasures here include a stirring 1842 denunciation of slavery in the Caribbean.

So romantique!
Cyrille Dubois (tenor), Orchestre National de Lille, Pierre Dumoussaud

Alpha 924—69 minutes.
To order or to hear any track, click here.

French opera is an acquired taste. Few French operas are among the most-often performed (mainly Bizet’s Carmen), though we’ve been hearing more Massenet in recent decades, and Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, Gounod’s Faust, Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, Delibes’s Lakmé, and Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann have maintained (or lost and regained) a certain presence in the repertory. And I shouldn’t forget Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, a work that is unique in so many ways, and Ravel’s two exquisite one-acters.

Well, here is a collection of French tenor arias, many of them shortish, that come mostly from works that have truly disappeared from opera houses (even in France and Belgium) in the intervening century or two and have never returned. The scores and parts were prepared by the first-rate team of scholars at the Center for French Romantic Music (located at the Palazzetto Bru Zane in Venice).

The singer, Cyrille Dubois, is one of the best French vocalists currently at work; I have delighted to hear him in such disparate repertoire as Gluck’s 1779 Écho et Narcisse and songs from the 1840s by Félicien David, and I have admired him also in the unstaged video of David’s 1859 grand opera Herculanum (on YouTube, with subtitles in, alas, Hungarian).

Dubois sings with exquisite control at all volumes, most touchingly when soft but stirringly, and even heroically, when full-voiced and high. He conveys the character and the words in a specific and elegant fashion. He lightly rolls his r’s, as has long been the practice among French singers of grand opera, instead of pronouncing them gutturally. (The guttural r is standard in spoken French and has long been frequent in French performances of comic opera.) Dubois’s treatment of the r adds a feeling of poised restraint to his performances, a “classiness” that I find immensely appealing and a little surprising. The only occasional problem I find in his vocal equipment this time around is a certain bleating (quick and wide vibrato) in passages sung at a medium volume (such as at the beginning of the first two tracks). But this flaw counts little when held against all the riches on display here.

The shortest arias (less than 3 minutes) are from Bizet’s La jolie fille de Perth, Saint-Saens’s Le timbre d’argent, and Benjamin Godard’s 1884 Pedro de Zalamea. There are a few “chestnuts”: “Viens, gentille dame,” from Boieldieu’s 1825 La dame blanche, Tonio’s aria (with the famous high C’s, taken with carefree ease here) from Donizetti’s aforementioned La fille, Wilhelm’s aria from Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon, and Gérald’s from Lakmé — all done in heartfelt fashion yet without exaggeration.

The biggest surprise for many (certainly for me) is how fine the excerpts are from operas I’ve never heard or sometimes never even read about, including arias by Auber, Louis Clapisson, Théodore Dubois, Gounod, Halévy, Charles Luce-Varlet, and (from 1913) Charles Silver. Plus we get two more by Ambroise Thomas, who clearly had a special affection for the sound of a tenor who straddles the border between “light” and “lyric.” The Clapisson is surprisingly strong, considering his posthumous reputation—indeed, this aria was chosen (wisely) to end the whole disc! It’s from an opéra-comique, Le code noir (1842) that takes aim at the enslavement, in the Caribbean, of vast numbers of people from Africa. The aria, in which the French navy officer Donatien boldly denounces the “tyrants” for their “cruelty” to the slave Zoé, may remind us that some of these operas may be well worth recording. Perhaps some may even find their way back onto the stage, with good program notes or pre-performance lectures explaining their cultural context back then and their ongoing cultural resonance today. (A 2020 revival in the Paris suburb of Massy was, to judge by photos and one online review, handled with some tact and intelligence.)

A scene from a 2020 L’Ensemble Les Paladins en résidence à l’Opéra de Massy production of Le code noir (an 1842 opera by Clapisson on a libretto by the renowned Eugène Scribe, attacking the enslavement of Blacks in the Caribbean). Photo: Michael Bunel

The Lille orchestra is marvelous throughout, even the solo English horn in the introduction to an aria from Halévy’s Les mousquetaires de la reine. (I have no idea why that instrument sounds so obnoxious on many recordings of works by Berlioz and others.) Tempos are well gauged and flexibly handled by Pierre Dumoussaud, whom I’ve admired in recordings of Offenbach, Saint-Saëns, and Messager.

The booklet contains a brief statement by the tenor, a three-pager by scholar Alexandre Dratwicki, and the sung texts in French and good English renderings. For further information on at least some of the operas and composers in question, the booklet refers the reader to the remarkable online archive of the Center for French Romantic Music: bruzanemediabase.com.

In short, this is a major release, which opera lovers will treasure, alongside other fine CDs of French opera arias sung by Léopold Simoneau, Rockwell Blake, Laurence Dale, Roberto Alagna, Marcelo Álvarez, Ben Heppner, John Osborn, Bryan Hymel, Benjamin Bernheim (with some Italian and Russian ones strewn in), and Michael Spyres. Each of these contains at least a few arias that are not on the other discs, and this new release featuring Dubois is even richer in unusual “finds.”

The CD carries the fun title “So romantique!” The first word is in English and italicized as if spoken (by a Francophone) with a mixture of admiration and amused toleration for the fact that the whole world does not, in fact, speak French.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York ArtsOpera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). He is part of the editorial team of Music & Musical Performance: An International Journal, an open-access source that includes contributions by performers (soprano Elly Ameling) as well as noted scholars (Robert M. Marshall, Peter Bloom) and is read around the world. The present review first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here with kind permission.

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