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Meet the ancestors: two singers who changed opera forever

Features - Classical Music | Opera

Meet the ancestors: two singers who changed opera forever

by Justine Nguyen on October 10, 2017 (October 10, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Opera | Comment Now
For their new albums, soprano Joyce El-Khoury and tenor Michael Spyres are walking in famous footsteps.

Callas. Björling. Ponselle. Caruso. These are just some of the names that shine brightly in the operatic firmament. But what about those present when some of the greatest operas were written? Singers who created the showiest, most virtuosic parts still thrilling audiences today? In the early 19th century, Gilbert Duprez and Julie Dorus-Gras created roles both familiar and lost to us today. With Opera Rara releasing recital discs by Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury dedicated to the pair’s repertoire, both will undoubtedly be subjects of interest again. But who were they exactly? 

Gilbert Duprez

The story goes that the modern tenor was born in 1837, when Gilbert Duprez burst onto the stage of the Paris Opéra as Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. To the astonishment of the audience, used to hearing a mix of falsetto and head voice, Duprez sang a high C with the full power of his chest voice in the demanding cabaletta Amis, amis. The Parisian public went into absolute raptures, no longer content with the airy, flute-like sounds typical of the ténor du jour.

Gilbert Duprez as Gaston in Verdi’s Jérusalem by Alexandre Lacauchie

Although Duprez marked a turning point in the development of opera, his vocal production had historical precedents. A letter written in 1814 claimed that tenor Giovanni David had, after a spell of ill health, strengthened his voice to “almost completely forget his head notes”, while correspondence from 1754 belonging to the flautist Johann Joachim Quantz asserted that the tenor Giovanni Paita’s beautiful voice was the result of unifying chest and head tones. 

Musicologist Roger Parker emphasises that accounts of the tenor’s technique may have been greatly exaggerated. “The essential change in Duprez’s voice came in the early 1830s, when he studied Italian vocal technique…During this time he acquired a heavier type of voice. It is likely he was using some kind of mixture of falsetto and chest voice through most of his career, perhaps with more chest voice in the mix as he got older. My guess is that there was no ‘primal’ moment, just a gradual darkening of his tone.”

Tenor Michael Spyres agrees. “Duprez began as a run-of-the-mill French tenor that did things by the book,” he says. “After studying in Italy and solidifying his technique, he came back to Paris and caused the major revolution we call the modern tenor voice.”

The Italian technique Duprez adopted was a departure from that of his countrymen. Sung-French closely corresponded to spoken-French, limiting its musical expressivity and calling for a traditional head and falsetto mix that had its roots in the castrato. Italian opera placed its emphasis on expression, with language secondary to sound. Duprez’s pairing of an Italianate intensity with the developing power of his voice was understandably thrilling to his Parisian audiences.  

The relative novelty of his technique was harnessed by the composers of the day, with the most important working relationship of Duprez’s life being the one he forged with Donizetti. The roles written for the tenor between 1833 and 1835 give us some indication of Duprez’s abilities and changing voice. Ugo in Parisina was the first, a part that called on his earlier, lighter sound as well as the more robust style he was cultivating. Then came Enrico in Rosmonda d’Inghilterra, significantly more declamatory and requiring more substantial vocal weight.

“In those days, composers saw it as their job to suit the music they were writing to the famous singers of the day”, Parker explains. “When writing for Duprez, composers invariably added some of the very high notes for which he was famous, but also added declamatory passages – he was very good at those too.”

Joyce El-Khoury, Michael SpyresJoyce El-Khoury and Michael Spyres

The most important and enduring of the Donizetti roles Duprez created was Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, which calls for most everything in a tenor’s tool kit. Indicative of the tenor’s evolving technique, Edgardo requires consummate legato, sustained declamation and stentorian outbursts. Duprez himself reportedly advised Donizetti on the structure and composition of the final scene, an insight into what the tenor himself believed to be his best qualities.  

By the time Donizetti composed Lucia, audiences and composers were beginning to expect more dramatic voices like Duprez’s, able to sing in large venues and complete with increasingly bigger orchestras. As a result, some contraltos and mezzos began to sing in higher tessituras uncongenial to their voices, often causing lasting vocal damage and resulting in shortened careers. 

But perhaps the most famous casualty of Duprez’s emergence was French tenor Adolphe Nourrit, whose reign as primo uomo came to a swift end the night of Duprez’s famous Arnold in Tell – ironically a role Nourrit himself had originated. Hearing in the audience’s acclaim the death knell of his career, Nourrit resigned from the Paris Opéra, and, unable to reproduce Duprez’s sound, jumped to his death from the third floor of his Naples apartment. The pure, ‘French’ sound of Nourrit thus gave way in dramatic fashion to the passionate, Italianate Duprez, ringing in a new breed of tenor on the operatic stage. 

Julie Dorus-Gras

The French operatic scene in the first half of the 19th century was essentially dominated by three types of soprano. ‘Falcon’ roles were heavier (or more Zwischenfach oriented); lighter, soubrette roles were mostly created by Laure Cinti-Damoreau; and then there were those parts associated with the Belgian soprano Julie Dorus-Gras. These placed significant demands on the singer: dazzling fioriture and high notes were combined with the weight and lower tessitura of a drammatico d’agilità. But Dorus-Gras was no mere song bird, despite possessing the money notes of the soubrette.

Julie Dorus-Gras as Marguerite de Valois in Les Huguenots

Though not nearly as well-known as her contemporary and frequent stage partner Gilbert Duprez, Julie Dorus-Gras was one of the 19th century’s most important singers. Born in 1805, she was an accomplished recitalist by her mid-teens, making her Paris Opéra debut at 26 in the virtuosic role of Countess Adele in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory

A versatile soprano, she created several roles that give us some understanding of her technical facility. Her earliest achievement was the premiere of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable in 1831, in which she created the role of Alice. However, she soon became celebrated for her ability to play either of the work’s heroines – her farewell at the Paris Opéra consisted of two acts of Robert, with Dorus-Gras alternating between Alice and Isabelle. 

“She was famous above all for her variety,” Parker emphasises, noting how she navigated the coloratura of Isabelle and the simplicity of Alice with equal fluency. “This was important, as most singers would have stuck to one style. Her repertory was much broader than most. She had great dramatic power but could execute quite fancy coloratura – if she’d carried on performing long enough, she might have been an ideal Violetta.” 

Soprano Joyce El-Khoury agrees, explaining that she realised in recording her tribute to Dorus-Gras that “not one of the arias on the disc is in any way easy to sing. The technical challenges in her repertoire are many, varied and constant… Many other vocalists of the time would build a core repertoire. Rather than be put off by the challenges of wide ranging roles, Dorus-Gras seemed to be inspired and stimulated by them. She also had a huge facility to assimilate music quickly and seemed to devour roles at breakneck speed.”

Being a quick study was vital for Dorus-Gras who created roles in quick succession after Alice in Robert. Eudoxie in Halévy’s La Juive followed in 1835, a role that La Gazette praised as allowing the soprano to demonstrate “all the richness of her beautiful voice and the flawlessness of her technique”. Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots came the next year, with Teresa in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini in 1838. Although Cellini had a famously poor reception, Dorus-Gras’ ability to maintain a beautiful sound even in the most florid of passages, as well as her “spiritual” manner of singing, were praised.  

Dorus-Gras’s roles encompassed much of the 19th-century soprano repertoire, from Italianate virtuosity to a more declamatory Gallic style. El-Khoury guesses that “she had first and foremost a beautiful sound. Warm in timbre but also with a great flexibility enabling her to handle the high-flying coloratura of the roles she sang with great aplomb.” Asked to suggest singers with similar qualities, she quips “hopefully me! But other artists that spring to mind are Nelly Miricioiu and Mariella Devia.” 

Gilbert Duprez became one of Dorus-Gras’ most important collaborators after his Paris Opéra debut in 1837. As Mathilde to his infamous Arnold in Guillaume Tell, their joint premieres included Halévy’s Guido et Ginévra, Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, and Donizetti’s Les Martyrs. Not long after his arrival in Paris, Berlioz declared that singing with the tenor seemed to inspire Dorus-Gras to new heights, with critics commending her ability to accommodate and even match his unusual, powerful style. 

This adaptability was central to her success and her significance in operatic history, El-Khoury suggests. “Rather than shape the repertoire she performed, on the contrary, I think she took the opposite approach of letting the repertoire shape her… It was this chameleon quality, this supreme adaptability, that helped meet the demands of the wide-ranging roles she sang.”

Joyce El-Khoury’s Écho and Michael Spyres’ Espoir are both out now on Opera Rara