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Tony Poncet (tenor)
Unnamed orchestras conducted by Jésus Etcheverry, Robert Wagner and Marcel Couraud
rec. 1958-1966 PHILIPS PRESTO CD 4388832 [72.40 + 70.30]
Ever since the First World War critics and opera lovers on this side of the Channel have been mourning the decline and disappearance of French singers. Indeed from a British or American perspective there seemed to be remarkably few "big names" who hailed from that part of the world. In truth, this has never been the case, as anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with French singers of the last hundred years will testify. We should, in fact, more accurately call them "francophone", as many of the finest hailed from Belgium. However it is undoubtedly true that French and Belgian singers did seem to be content to make their careers almost exclusively in their homelands in a way that Italians and Germans were not. In the days before mass communication and easy foreign travel, most of the rest of the world simply had no experience or knowledge of most French singers, and although Tony Poncet did appear outside France, the great majority of his career was in France and Belgium. He is a classic example of the phenomenon. I would suspect that to the great majority of readers even of a website like this, Tony Poncet is at most a name, and probably not even that; this set gives us the opportunity to make the acquaintance of a fine singer.
Poncet was, in fact, Spanish not French, being born in Andalusia in 1918. However his poverty stricken family moved to France in 1922, so his education and cultural milieu were entirely French. He left school at 13 and became apprenticed as a mechanic in a garage, but from 1933 sang with a choir called Les chanteurs montagnards d'Alfred Roland. Early in the Second World War he joined the "Volontaires Étrangers" regiment. He served with some distinction but was captured by the Germans and spent several years in a prisoner-of-war camp near Munich. After the war he gained a military veterans' scholarship, and entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1947. In 1954 he won the prestigious Concours International des Voix d'Or competition in Cannes, his career took off and he made his debuts at both the Opéra and Opéra Comique in 1957. He retired in 1974 and died aged 60 in 1979.
I have been unable to discover the full details of the original Philips issues of these recordings, but Poncet made several recital LPs which, surprisingly, all contained recordings conducted by two of the three listed conductors with the accompaniment played by an unnamed orchestra. They were not designed as integrated, planned recital discs. All the tracks except Rossini's "La Danza" are sung in French. The first CD begins with lighter material such as Neapolitan songs followed by operetta arias. Poncet's repertoire was essentially of the heavier sort, so I had not been expecting these to be particularly convincing, but they are actually rather good. He can tear a passion to pieces in "Catari" (as the French version of "Core 'ngrato" is titled), but the two excerpts from Lehár's Pays du Sourire are very sensitively and delicately done and are among the highlights of the set. A clutch of opéra comique arias follows, also enjoyable, though without the delicacy of the best French singers in this repertoire and in a voice distinctly too hefty for their delicate charms. The final section of "Viens, gentil dame" from Boieldieu's Dame Blanche shows his lack of technique in more florid music, with smudgy ornamentation not really compensated for by some stentorian top notes. I hate to think of how David Devriès, Edmond Clément or André d'Arkor would have reacted to this performance.
The remainder of the discs is of repertoire far more suited to Poncet's talents, covering both French and Italian operas. His performance of the cabaletta section of "Pays merveilleux" from Meyerbeer's L'Africaine is thrilling, and he makes a surprisingly good fist of the very difficult "Plus blanche" from Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots. I would like to have seen more inward sadness in "Rachel, quand du seigneur" from Halévy's La Juive, and again he is better in the cabaletta "Dieu m'éclaire" than the cantabile. Full marks for performing the whole scene with linking recitative and chorus part, though. Offenbach's song about Kleinzack from Contes d'Hoffmann is sung with great character and excellent diction. The belted-out B flat in the Carmen aria did not lead me to expect much from the Pecheur de Perles aria, but it turned out to be surprisingly haunting despite some unpleasantly squeezed high notes and others which would have benefited from more covering of the tone. "Salut demeure" from Gounod's Faust is better, with some excellent legato, though I would have preferred him to have maintained the piano with which he started the note rather than crescendo to fortissimo on the top C. He is more suited to the passion of "Ah fuyer" from Massenet's Manon and "Esprits gardien" from Reyer's Sigurd.
The final group is of Italian arias which are generally well vocalised but not always idiomatic. Whoever put the collection together clearly had no idea of the context of the arias; there are three arias from Le Trouvère (otherwise known as Il Trovatore) whose ordering is simply incompetent, though the "Di quella pira" is a cracker. The recital concludes with "Asile héréditaire" from Guillaume Tell, which was probably Poncet's most famous role, sung with style in the cantabile and excitement in the cabaletta.
As I think has been made clear, Poncet was not a great singer, but he was a very good singer despite his limitations. The voice is of excellent quality with real squillo at the top and he is rarely unmusical. This is not a set for anyone whose tenorial ideal is Ian Bostridge, but I very much enjoyed it and would propose it to anyone with a taste for the full-blooded.