This issue of a 1953 recording of Les Pecheurs de Perles and a recital by Pierrette Alarie sadly coincides with the death of Mme. Alarie aged 89 on July 10. This recording is a decent tribute to the fine partnership she achieved on stage and on record with her husband Leopold Simoneau (d. 2006) and her own individual success. Their partnership was well-matched with the vibrancy of Mme. Alairie’s voice complementing Simoneau’s tenor. They appeared side by side over a long period and enjoyed considerable success.
Although they did sing Mozart together – for instance in Don Giovanni with Simoneau as Ottavio and Alarie as Zerlina in 1952 – it was in the French repertoire that their partnership excelled. It is unfortunate that many of their recordings are out of print: Lakmé highlights and Orphee et Eurydice for Philips, Faust and Carmen (Simoneau as Don Jose, Alarie as Michaela) on LP and that their live recordings are not well recorded: a Contes d’Hoffmann with RAI. This may account for why Mme. Alarie’s name is not bandied about among opera fans to the same extent as that of her husband. It helps that he recorded a number of roles in stereo for big labels like EMI Classics and Decca.
Mme. Alarie actually enjoyed more success at the Metropolitan Opera than her husband who made a few belated performances as Don Ottavio a few seasons before he retired from opera. Alarie made her debut as Oscar in a broadcast performance of Un Ballo in Maschera among a star-studded cast including Zinka Milanov, Jan Peerce and Leonard Warren. She also appeared as Olympia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann alongside Raoul Jobin, Blonde in Die Entführung aus dem Serail with Eleanor Steber, Xenia in Boris Godunov starring Ezio Pinza. Both their careers were focused in Europe however with forays to North America. Alarie made her name in taxing coloratura roles such as Lakmé, Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor and Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Opéra Comique in Paris.
Her voice recorded quite well with an attractive bright quality and her diction is clear. Critics have complained of ‘shrillness’ in her timbre but I do not find that too distracting in this performance and attribute blame to the restricted recorded sound of the LPs which have cleaned up well. It cannot match modern recorded sound but is detailed – albeit cramped as far as orchestral sound goes. Alarie’s best qualities are evident in the fine performance of the recitative and aria ‘Me voilà seule dans la nuit – Comme autrefois’ [CD1, Track 15]. Her phrasing shows a particular skill for the elaborate ornaments required by the role, sung with clarity.
It is fair to point out that competitive as Alarie and Simoneau’s singing is compared to other singers on the complete sets, Amelita Galli-Curci’s recording of ‘Comme Autrefois’ from 1921 and even more so Luisa Tetrazzini’s recording of that aria from 1909 are so much superior as to be in quite a different league, as are the singing of Beniamino Gigli or John McCormack. I suppose that the scarcity of performances of the Pearlfishers will mean that a modern recording with world-class singers in the main roles is unlikely which is a shame given the opportunities these roles provide. One can imagine that Angela Gheorghiu or Renée Fleming would be most impressive as Leila.
The orchestral playing is fine throughout - try the muted beginning of ‘De mon amie, fleur endormie’. Simoneau is at his most stylish there with a charismatic turn reminiscent at times of Tito Schipa. No tenor on a complete recording can match Beniamino Gigli’s singing of the famous aria and duet which is wonderful, sobs and all, or more recently Giuseppe Di Stefano. Simoneau’s voice and portrayal are far smoother and softer than Nicolai Gedda’s performance all the same (with Dervaux in 1961). The disappointment prompted by Simoneau’s Act One contributions are all the more mysterious given how he rallies in the Act Two duet with Alarie. In the famous duet ‘Au fond du temple saint’ Simoneau and Rene Bianco - an able singer but not a match for Ernest Blanc on the 1961 recording with Dervaux - cannot generate the excitement of Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill even as part of a complete recording - the others sang the duet out of context. It is in the second part of that duet that they gel as a duo and sound like they are enacting their parts rather than going through the motions. The lack of vulgarity that Simoneau aims for in the arias is admirable but the effect can err into blandness.
Simoneau’s phrasing is fluid and his voice more focused in the aria for Nadir ‘Je crois entendre encore’ but even here he does not set any new standards. I wonder if the conductor is at fault because there is not enough drive – compare it to performances by Alfredo Kraus who allies the plangent tone of Simoneau with a more forthright and forward-moving performance. Kraus also has the more secure and bright high notes. I wonder if the scenes were recorded in sequence since there is a marked improvement by Act Two’s ‘De mon amie, fleur endormie’ which is by far the best sung of the complete sets and indeed is Simoneau’s finest moment in this recording.
Mme. Alarie achieves a similar clarity of tone and economy of expression in episodes such as her aria ‘O Dieu Brahma’ without being bland – indeed her bright tone and alert singing could have been shown in even better light had she been well partnered by her conductor. Alarie is rather let down here by Fournet who fails to give this passage the lift that is so evident on the recording with Cluytens who, expert as ever in French opera helps out his soprano. Martha Angelici was a fine artist with a smooth and limpid voice and for all her talents Alarie cannot match this achievement at the slow speeds adopted by Fournet. Indeed, although they are not her strength Alarie’s high notes are secure, if rather thin, and could have been an advantage over Angelici but this is undermined by the plodding conducting because instead of noticing her phrasing we notice ‘gear changes’ in her voice instead.
Pierrette Alarie does not have the luxurious caramel voice of Anna Moffo but her singing is actually better phrased than her famous counterpart. Alarie is a much less seductive presence and cannot compete with Moffo's rich and smooth high notes which are fuller and more lyrical, however. Her singing is focused and clean with a tight vibration in her tone which is more youthful sounding than Moffo. She is more in the tradition of the coloratura Toti Dal Monte with a bright sounding voice but she cannot quite compete with the brilliant accuracy of the older singer who was a great stylist even singing in Italian. Dal Monte was accompanied with great skill by Nastrucci and the La Scala orchestra.
Henri Legay has a leaner but darker sound on the Cluytens set, and he is more interesting and expressive than Leopold Simoneau. Even so, given the competition in complete recordings Simoneau’s failings are pretty relative – for instance he does not display any of the shrillness that makes Gedda’s performance rather less than ideal. I find Gedda rather out-of-sorts on the 1961 version with his performance being rather stiff and his voice rather tight as recorded – far from the standard he achieved in recordings as Tamino and Don Ottavio with Klemperer for example. Alain Vanzo sang the aria as well as anyone in modern times – finer than Simoneau here - in a recording from 1958 but major labels such as EMI, unforgivably, took an age to record complete roles with this superb singer and it was not until 1977 he recorded Les Pecheurs de Perles.
Cluytens’ chorus and orchestra are better controlled and better recorded than Fournet’s grouping. The conductor knows how this music should go but there is too little of the surging energy which makes Cluytens’ recording that much more beautiful and which, more importantly, lends life to passages which Bizet, in his inexperience, could not quite glue together.
In the other arias included her by Pierrette Alarie by Gounod, Thomas, Delibes and Bizet there is a deal more competition with singers of the calibre of Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Mirella Freni and Montserrat Caballé who all rather overtake Mme. Alarie. As with the main recording her native stylishness is a considerable asset in these extracts. The recording of Pecheurs de Perles with Fournet would have, under finer direction, been a first-choice for this opera. As it is, I think I would prefer to recommend the Cluytens set which is the more successful performance overall.
The presentation is fine including an interesting essay by Jürgen Schaarwächter. The only error I have noticed is a typo on the front cover where the soprano’s name is wrongly spelled ‘Alaire’ but is elsewhere spelt correctly as ‘Alarie’.