What does a French
dramatic soprano sound like and when
did you last hear one? Many people will
be familiar with the historic recordings
of French opéra-comique from
the 1950s and with the recordings of
Ninon Vallin and Georges Thill. But
the 19th century French dramatic
repertoire is less familiar and its
interpreters even rarer. This recital
disc by the French soprano Régine
Crespin is a welcome opportunity to
hear a French dramatic soprano in appropriate
repertoire. And dramatic Crespin was,
being justly famous for her performances
of Kundry, Sieglinde and the Marschallin
as well as her roles in the French and
Italian repertoire. It is one of life’s
ironies that some of her best known
recordings are of the German repertoire.
This disc consists
of not one, but two recitals. The first
seven items date from 1961 and come
from Crespin’s second LP recording.
Crespin had a love-hate relationship
with recording, describing the microphone
as mon cher cauchemar (nightmare).
In her autobiography she describes the
1961 recording session as follows: ‘It
seemed to me […] that you couldn’t hear
me at all! I ended up yelling as loud
as I could throughout the sessions:
it was a fight between me and "it"’.
The first aria is from
Gounod’s ‘La Reine de Saba’ which was
written in 1862, three years after ‘Faust’
and just before ‘Mireille’ and ‘Roméo
et Juliette’. But crippled with an unsatisfactory
libretto which involves a love triangle
between King Solomon, Balkis (the Queen
of Sheba of the title) and his principal
sculptor and architect, the opera never
really equalled the success of ‘Faust’
or ‘Roméo’. I was immediately
struck by Crespin’s superb diction,
something which is common to all the
recordings on the disc. Another feature
is the almost Nordic brightness of her
voice. She sings with cool clear lines
giving the music an intensity which
makes something more of Gounod’s rather
sentimental music. There are moments
when she caresses the music which make
you almost believe the opera might be
worth listening to. There is a bit of
‘wow’ at the top of her voice, which
is present in most of the items from
the 1961 sessions, probably the result
of her unfortunate microphone experience.
‘Sappho’ was Gounod’s
first opera; again it involves a complex
love triangle with the Greek poetess
Sappho as protagonist. It was really
only a ‘succès d’estime’ and
Sappho’s "O ma lyre immortelle",
which she sings at the end of the opera
just before leaping into the sea, is
the opera’s best known number. Again,
Crespin is superb at spinning out the
long lines, giving a haunting, neo-classical
stature to Gounod’s music.
With Marguerite’s Ballad
from ‘Faust’ we are in more familiar
territory. Whilst Crespin might not
be obvious casting as Marguerite, she
sings the ballad quite touchingly. However,
Marguerite was a role with which she
was associated in her early career and
I would be fascinated to hear what she
made of the coloratura of the Jewel
With Reyer’s ‘Sigurd’
we venture into really obscure territory.
The opera uses the same characters as
Wagner’s Götterdämmerung with
a similar plot based on the Nibelungenlied.
Reyer knew no Wagner later than Lohengrin
and was unaware that Wagner was working
on the same plot. Though old-fashioned
in tone and rather wordy, the piece
was surprisingly popular. In the 1950s
Crespin had some success in the French
provinces with the role of Brunnehilde
and she brings convincing nobility and
fascination to this music, again making
you want to hear more.
historical opera ‘La Juive’ has retained
a toe-hold in the opera house, despite
it’s rather improbable dramaturgy, perhaps
because of Halévy’s strong melodic
invention. The first Rachel was Cornélie
Falcon who gave her name to the type
of French dramatic soprano required
for these roles, a type to which Crespin
belonged. Her singing of Rachel’s ‘Il
va venir’ is quite affecting.
Massenet’s sacred drama,
Marie-Magdeleine was one of his first
successes, with Pauline Viardot singing
the role of Méryem. It is rather
closer to opera than oratorio; Méryem’s
aria, ‘O me soeurs’ is truly romantic
and not a little sentimental; it could
easily come from an opera. Crespin displays
all of her virtues here, but they are
put to better use with the next Massenet
item, the ‘Air de Lettres’ from ‘Werther’.
Here we seem get a more fully rounded
There is a gap of ten
years between this item and the next.
All the remaining items on the disc
were recorded in 1971. This was an eventful
decade for Crespin. Her Kundry was followed
by Sieglinde, Leonore, Ariadne and Brünnhilde
(Wagner this time, in ‘Die Walküre’).
But by the late 1960s she was having
vocal difficulties with her upper register
and she re-trained as a mezzo-soprano.
This is reflected in the choice of items
for the recital.
The 1971 recital opens
with two further items from ‘Werther’.
If the previous aria from the opera
seemed to enter a new dramatic world,
in these two recordings Crespin’s performance
seems to take on new depths of drama
and a more fully-rounded character.
Her voice is darker and richer, but
the familiar virtues are still there
though there is sometimes a bit of a
beat. The recording itself has improved
and the Orchestra de Las Suisse Romande
under Alain Lombard make fine accompanist.
Tauride’ is a role which Crespin toured
in the mid-1960s and there survives
a live recording of the opera from Buenos
Aires. She sings the Iphigénie’s
recitative and aria from Act I of the
opera. In the live recording Crespin
is moving, but cool and neo-classical
with long spun lines. Here in the studio,
she seems to bring more dramatic intensity
to the aria, greater depth to the character
but at a slight cost to the perfection
of the vocal line, a cost that I think
I can easily live with. Lombard’s orchestral
accompaniment is inevitably a little
heavier than we might consider nowadays.
Berlioz was another
composer with whom Crespin was associated.
She recorded substantial extracts from
Les Troyens and here we have
Marguerite’s lovely Romance from ‘La
Damnation de Faust’. This is followed
by two items from Carmen, which became
something of a signature role for Crespin
after her move to mezzo-soprano. There
is little in her performance that sounds
like a soprano manqué, just attention
to the music with an underlying dark
sultriness. The final item is another
novelty, Scozzone’s aria from Saint-Saëns’
‘Ascanio’, a charming piece, charmingly
This disc provides
a welcome opportunity to hear Crespin
in a wide variety French repertoire.
It is a good counterbalance to her studio
recordings of Wagner and Strauss and
the many recordings of her in the Italian
repertory, often sung in French. Not
everyone will like Crespin’s style.
Her earlier recordings have a neo-classical
coolness that is combined with an intensity
that I find very appealing. Her later
recording, show her preserving many
of her later virtues combined with a
greater depth, but they do sometimes
hinting at her vocal problems. Still,
I would have no hesitation at recommending
this disc to anyone interested in French
singing and French opera.