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Miguel Villabella (1892-1954): Les premiers disques (Pathé saphir 1925-27)
Ambroise THOMAS

Mignon – Elle ne croyait pas
Leo DELIBES (1836-1891)

Lakmé – Ah! Viens
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)

Mireille – Anges du paradis
Faust – Salut, demeure chaste et pure
Sérénade – Quand tu chantes

Les dragons de Villars – Ne parle pas, Rose
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Rigoletto – Comme la plume au vent
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)

Werther – Invocation à la nature
Manon – La Rêve
Manon – Ah! Fuyez douce images
Grisélidis – Ouvrez-vous sur mon front
Panurge – Chanson de la Touraine
Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame – Oh! Liberté
Sapho – Qu’il est loin, mon pays
André Charles Prosper MESSAGER (1853-1929)

Fortunio – J’amais la veille maison grise
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)

Les contes d’Hoffmann – Ah! Vivre deux
Les contes d’Hoffmann – Oh! Dieu, de quelle ivresse
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)

Le Roi d’Ys – Aubade

Suzanne – Comme un petit oiseaux
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)

Le Barbier de Seville – Duo Act 1 D’un metal si précieux with A. Baugé
Le Barbier de Seville - Sérénade
Osman Perez FRIERE

Ay Ay Ay
Cancion Andalouza
Ruggiero LEONCAVALLO (1858-1919)

Serenade française
Miguel Villabella (tenor)
Unidentified accompaniments
Recorded 1925-27
MALIBRAN MR 537 [78.16]


Miguel Villabella, though remembered as a quintessential French tenor, was actually a Basque, born in Bilbao in 1892. His father was a singer, a famous Zarzuela baritone, from whom the young tenor learned much but a move to Paris led to a meeting with Lucien Fugère, doyen of French bass-baritones and musical life in Paris. He made a concert debut in San Sebastian in 1917 and his operatic debut (Tosca) a year later, opened at the Opéra-Comique in 1920 and thereafter, once established, was seldom heard outside France (he did get as far as Brussels and though he was billed for a Florence appearance it can’t be confirmed he actually appeared). His career wound down after the Second War – his stage career ended in 1940 - as he devoted more and more time to teaching and he died in 1954 after routine surgery. He took the expected roles, Don José, Hoffmann, Fernando (in Così), Des Grieux, Rinuccio and Gérald amongst them. He sang under Bruno Walter and recorded Lully (though there’s none here) so he was certainly no one-dimensional tenor.

What he was instead was an expressive lyric tenor with a fine range, especially at the top where his floated head voice was exceptionally convincing. He was a most stylish exponent of the French tradition, one that embraces a good number of Basque and Corsican singers in addition to Villabella. His Mignon is open, lyric, and splendid throughout the range though with maybe too much of a lyric bleat but his Mireille is ardent and expressive and fully commanding. In Rigoletto’s Comme la plume au vent – almost everything’s sung in French – his ardour is almost up there with Georges Thill whilst his technique is quite unruffled by Messager’s Fortunio extract. He is plangency itself in Manon – marvellously floated head voice with admirable breath control (even at the top there is no sense of strain) – and he is noble and virile in Massenet’s Grisélidis. The voix mixte he so effortlessly deploys (essentially head voice and falsetto) is emblematically French and wonderful to hear – though arguably we do hear it rather a lot. He has plenty of power in reserve throughout and turns on the stylish ease in Offenbach though even he can’t do much with the wobbly old band that accompanies him in Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame. His Roi d’Ys is notable for richness of execution, latent power, consummate style and portamenti on light head notes whilst his Opéra-Comique credentials are on show in Suzanne. He makes a good team with Baugé in the Rossini – his partner starts rather unsteadily but soon warms up though in his solo Rossini, whilst his divisions are special, he can be a mite superficial. But we can enjoy the two Spanish items for their idiomatic control.

On some of the copies there are minor problems; blasting, some thumps and bumps. But I would persist beyond them to appreciate this lyrically elevated and tonally admirable exponent of a vanished performing style. The notes consist of a bare paragraph of biographical details, in French and English. Try the singing though.

Jonathan Woolf


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