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Great Singers, Second Series / Malibran To Titiens By George T. Ferris Characters: 11951

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Mme. Viardot's high position on the operatic stage of course brought her into intimate association with the leading singers of her age, some of whom have been mentioned in previous sketches. But there was one great tenor of the French stage, Nourrit, who, though he died shortly after Mme. Viardot's entrance on her lyric career, yet bore such relation to the Garcia family as to make a brief account of this gifted artist appropriate under this caption. Adolphe Nourrit, of whom the French stage is deservedly proud, was the pupil of Manuel Garcia, the intimate friend of Maria Malibran, and the judicious adviser of Pauline Viardot in her earlier years. The son of a tenor singer, who united the business of a diamond broker with the profession of music, young Nourrit received a good classical education, and was then placed in the Conservatoire, where he received a most thorough training in the science of music, as well as in the art of singing. It was said of him in after-years that he was able to write a libretto, compose the music to it, lead the orchestra, and sing the tenor r?le in it, with equal facility. His first appearance was in Gluck's "Iphigenie en Tauride," in 1821, his age then being nineteen. Gifted with remarkable intelligence and ambition, he worked indefatigably to overcome his defects of voice, and perfect his equipment as an artist. Manuel Garcia, the most scientific and exacting of singing teachers, was the maestro under whom Nourrit acquired that large and noble style for which he became eminent. He soon became principal tenor at the Académie, and created all of the leading tenor r?les of the operas produced in France for ten years. Among these may be mentioned Néoclès in "La Siège de Corinthe," Masaniello in "La Muette de Portici,"Arnold in "Guillaume Tell," Leonardo da Vinci in Ginestell's "Fran?ois I," Un Lnconnu in "Le Dieu et la Bayadere," Robert le Diable, Edmond in "La Serment," Nadir in Cherubini's "Ali Baba," Eleazar in "La Juive," Raoul in "Les Huguenots," Phobus in Bertini's "La Esmeralda," and Stradella in Niedermeyer's opera.

Nourrit gave a distinct stamp and a flavor to all the parts he created, and his comedy was no less refined and pleasing than his tragedy was pathetic and commanding. He was idolized by the public, and his influence with them and with his brother artists was great. He was consulted by managers, composers, and authors. He wrote the words for Eleazar's fine air in "La Juive," and furnished the suggestions on which Meyerbeer remodeled the second and third acts of "Robert le Diable" and the last act of "Les Huguenots." The libretti for the ballets of "La Sylphide," "La Tempête," "L'?le des Pirates," "Le Diable Boiteux," etc., as danced by Taglioni and Fanny Elssler, were written by this versatile man, and he composed many charming songs, which are still favorites in French drawing-rooms. It was Nourrit who popularized the songs of Schubert, and otherwise softened the French prejudice against modern German music. In private life this great artist was so witty, genial, and refined, that he was a favorite guest in the most distinguished and exclusive salons. When Duprez was engaged at the opera it severely mortified Nourrit, and, rather than divide the honors with a new singer, he resigned his position as first tenor at the Académie, where he so long had been a brilliant light. His farewell to the French public, April 1, 1837, was the most flattering and enthusiastic ovation ever accorded to a French artist, but he could not be induced to reconsider his purpose. He was professor of lyric declamation at the Conservatoire, but this position, too, he resigned, and went away with the design of making a musical tour through France, Germany, and Italy. Nourrit, who was subject to alternate fits of excitement and depression, was maddened to such a degree by a series of articles praising Duprez at his expense, that his friends feared for his sanity, a dread which was ominously realized in Italy two years afterward, where Nourrit was then singing. Though he was very warmly welcomed by the Italians, his morbid sensibility took offense at Naples at what he fancied was an unfavorable opinion of his Pollio in "Norma." His excitement resulted in delirium, and he threw himself from his bedroom window on the paved court-yard below, which resulted in instant death. Nourrit was the intimate friend of many of the most distinguished men of the age in music, literature, and art, and his sad death caused sincere national grief.

As a singer and actor, Nourrit had one of the most creative and originating minds of his age. He himself never visited the United States, but his younger brother, Auguste, was a favorite tenor in New York thirty years ago.

The part of John of Leyden in "Le Prophète," whose gestation covered many years of growth and change, was originally written for and in consultation with Nourrit, just as that of Fides in the same opera was remolded for and by suggestion of Pauline Viardot. Yet the opera did not see the light until Nourrit's successor, Duprez, had vanished from the stage, and his successor again, Roger, who, though a brilliant singer, was far inferior to the other two in creative intellectuality, appeared on the scene. Chorley asserts that Du-prez was the only artist he had ever seen and heard whose peculiar qualities and excellences would have enabled him to do entire musical and dramatic justice to the arduous part of John of Leyden.... "I have never seen anything like a complete conception of the character, so wide in its range of emotions; and might have doubted its possibility, had I not remembered the admirable, subtile, and riveting dramatic treatment of Eleazar in 'La Juive' (the Shyloch of opera) by M. Duprez."

This artist may be also included as belonging largely to the sphere of Pauline Viardot's art-life. Albert Duprez, the son of a French performer, was born in 1806, and, like his predecessor No

urrit, was a student at the Conservatoire. At first he did not succeed in operatic singing, but, recognizing his own faults and studying the great models of the day, among them Nourrit, whom he was destined to supplant, he finally impressed himself on the public as the leading dramatic singer of France. According to Fetis and Castil-Blaze, he never had a superior in stage declamation, and the finest actors of the Comédie Fran?aise might well have taken a lesson from him. His first great success, which caused his engagement in grand opera, was the creation of Edgardo in "Lucia di Lammermoor" at Naples in 1835.

Two years later he made his début at the Académie in "Guillaume Tell," and his novel and striking reading of his part on this occasion contributed largely to his fame. He was a leading figure at this theatre for twelve years, and was the first representative of many important tenor r?les, among which may be mentioned those of "Benvenuto Cellini," "Les Martyrs," "La Favorita," "Dom Sebastien," "Otello," and "Lucia." Duprez was insignificant, even repellent in his appearance, but, in spite of these defects, his tragic passion and the splendid intelligence displayed in his vocal art gave him a deserved prominence. Duprez composed many songs and romances, chamber-music, two masses, and eight operas, and was the author of a highly esteemed musical method, which is still used at the Conservatoire, where he was a professor of singing.

Another name linked with not a few of Mme. Viardot's triumphs is that of Ronconi, a name full of pleasant recollections, too, for many of the opera-goers of the last generation in the United States. There have been only a few lyric actors more versatile and gifted than he, or who have achieved their rank in the teeth of so many difficulties and disadvantages. His voice was limited in compass, inferior in quality, and habitually out of tune, his power of musical execution mediocre, his physical appearance entirely without grace, picturesqueness, or dignity. Yet Ronconi, by sheer force of a versatile dramatic genius, delighted audiences in characters which had been made familiar to the public through the splendid personalities of Tamburini and Lablache, personalities which united all the attributes of success on the lyric stage-noble physique, grand voice, the highest finish of musical execution, and the actor's faculty. What more unique triumph can be fancied than such a one violating all the laws of probability? Ronconi's low stature and commonplace features could express a tragic passion which could not be exceeded, or an exuberance of the wildest, quaintest, most spontaneous comedy ever born of mirth's most airy and tameless humor. Those who saw Ronconi's acting in this country saw the great artist as a broken man, his powers partly wrecked by the habitual dejection which came of domestic suffering and professional reverses, but spasmodic gleams of his old energy still lent a deep interest to the work of the artist, great even in his decadence. In giving some idea of the impression made by Ronconi at his best, we can not do better than quote the words of an able critic: "There have been few such examples of terrible courtly tragedy in Italian opera as Signor Ronconi's Chevreuse, the polished demeanor of his earlier scenes giving a fearful force of contrast to the latter ones when the torrent of pent-up passion nears the precipice. In spite of the discrepancy between all our ideas of serious and sentimental music and the old French dresses, which we are accustomed to associate with the Dorantes and Alcestes of Molière's dramas, the terror of the last scene when (between his teeth almost) the great artist uttered the line-'Suir uscio tremendo lo sguardo figgiamo'-clutching the while the weak and guilty woman by the wrist, as he dragged her to the door behind which her falsity was screened, was something fearful, a sound to chill the blood, a sight to stop the breath." This writer, in describing his performance of the part of the Doge in Verdi's "I Due Foscari," thus characterizes the last act when the Venetian chief refuses to pardon his own son for the crime of treason, faithful to Venice against his agonized affections as a father: "He looked sad, weak, weary, leaned back as if himself ready to give up the ghost, but, when the woman after the allotted bars of noise began again her second-time agony, it was wondrous to see how the old sovereign turned in his chair, with the regal endurance of one who says 'I must endure to the end,' and again gathered his own misery into his old father's heart, and shut it up close till the woman ended. Unable to grant her petition, unable to free his son, the old man when left alone could only rave till his heart broke. Signor Ronconi's Doge is not to be forgotten by those who do not regard art as a toy, or the singer's art as something entirely distinct from dramatic truth."

His performance of the quack doctor Dulcamara, in "L'Elisir d'Amore," was no less amazing as a piece of humorous acting, a creation matched by that of the haggard, starveling poet in "Matilda di Shabran" and Papageno in Mozart's "Zauberflote." Anything more ridiculous and mirthful than these comedy chef-d'ouvres could hardly be fancied. The same critic quoted above says: "One could write a page on his Barber in Rossini's master-work; a paragraph on his Duke in 'Lucrezia Borgia,' an exhibition of dangerous, suspicious, sinister malice such as the stage has rarely shown; another on his Podesta in 'La Gazza Ladra' (in these two characters bringing him into close rivalry with Lablache, a rivalry from which he issued unharmed); and last, and almost best of his creations, his Masetto." Ronconi is, we believe, still living, though no longer on the stage; but his memory will remain one of the great traditions of the lyric drama, so long as consummate histrionic ability is regarded as worthy of respect by devotees of the opera.

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