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Robert Massard – Great French Baritone
A partial survey of his discography, including some “introuvables”
By Ralph Moore

I should preface this survey of recordings featuring the great French baritone Robert Massard by declaring that I have long been an admirer, ever since I first heard his voice well over forty-five years ago. He is one of those singers whose voice inexplicably touches me more than equally gifted and accomplished artists. This can be rationalised only up to a point: his baritone exhibits all the virtues of a properly trained and registered instrument, in that it is wholly even throughout its range with a free, easy top and dark, open, bronze low notes, no throatiness or constriction, seamless legato, and exhibiting a peculiar sweetness of timbre into which the singer can also inject scorn and bite when the characterisation of a role demands it, but there is also the same indefinable factor which leads me to favour, say, Claudia Muzio or Maria Callas over any other soprano regardless of their vocal failings. It has a lot to do with the manner in which Massard colours his voice to express myriad emotions, which has less to do with vocal technique than dramatic sensibility, but ultimately, the appeal of certain human voices over others is a mystery.

Unfortunately, I never heard him on stage, but the live recordings here and the company he kept in performance both bear witness to the amplitude and heft of his voice. Although he performed mostly in France, he had an important international career lasting over thirty years, singing in most of the major global opera houses (except the Met and only once in Germany, in Wiesbaden – their loss!) alongside the most celebrated conductors and singers of his day - beginning with Callas, with whom he recorded a famous Carmen, as an elegant but macho Escamillo. His operatic repertoire numbered over a hundred roles and he made over sixty commercial recordings. No article such as this can hope to do justice to such a legacy, so I am mostly concentrating here upon some comparatively rare recordings including those from M. Massard’s own, private collection which he was kind enough to send me. Many are live, radio broadcast recordings, some of which may be found on websites such as House of Opera and they reveal aspects of his art which are not represented in the huge discography of his studio output. I am particularly taken by his Macbeth (see below), yet one should not be surprised by its success, given that he sang such a superb Rigoletto - he was the first Frenchman to sing that role at the Bolshoi. At the other end of the scale, are his renowned assumptions of comic roles such as Don Ernesto in Bizet’s Don Procopio and that wheedling, pompous braggart Fieramosca in Colin Davis’ pioneering recording of Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini – which was, I think, my first encounter with his voice. Massard triumphantly portrays a snivelling social climber who finally sees the light, abandons his misguided pursuit of Teresa and throws in his lot with his rival, Cellini to help him cast the statue. The way he whines “Comme un furet, moi, je me cache ici”- (“I’ll hide myself like a ferret in here” - when hiding in Teresa’s bedroom), makes me smile every time I hear it; his comic timing and inflection are admirable.

I have supplemented those recordings I was sent with some more widely available which I already had on my shelves and had previously reviewed, so not every recording here is by any means “introuvable”, but several are rare.

Throughout his career, M. Massard primarily sang the French lyric baritone repertoire, although his most performed role was the Barber of Seville – 149 times! He also sang a good deal of Donizetti and Puccini, nearly a hundred performances of Verdi’s La Traviata, forty of Rigoletto and several runs of Don Carlos. Apart from a few appearances in 1952, the first year of his career, in Les Maîtres Chanteurs (Die Meistersinger), a handful of performances in Tristan et Isolde in the 50’s and twenty-two performances of the Herald in Lohengrin, from 1960 onwards he otherwise – probably wisely – avoided Wagner, which no doubt contributed to the preservation of his magnificent voice and his longevity as a performer.

The spur for this article came about when earlier this year I wrote to M. Massard, thinking that in his ninety-fifth year – he was born in August 1925 in Pau, where he now resides – he might like to hear from a certified and certifiable operaphile how much pleasure I had derived from his work over the years. I was not expecting the gracious response I received, first in the form of a long phone call, then a substantial package containing private recordings on CD, catalogues, articles and the signed and dedicated photograph reproduced here. We have since had several more phone conversations and my wife and I would very much like to visit him if circumstances ever again permit that. He is currently hale and hearty and speaks beautifully clear French in the firm and fluent tones of a man half his age, reminiscing most entertainingly about his life and work. It seemed to me that the least I could do was remind our readership of the career of a singer who is one of a select company of great French baritones of the same era, including Ernest Blanc, Gabriel Bacquier and Alain Fondary. As Massard himself laments, where is their like among French singers today? “On est en plein désert du chant français!” (French singing is currently in the middle of a desert!) That is not to denigrate any current French operatic stars, but it is undeniable that there was a time when it had such a wealth of world-class singers that France exported them, whereas the number of such talents has now conspicuously dwindled.

I consider below recordings of fifteen complete operas and a combined recital album. They are not all by any means his best-known but they fairly represent, I hope, the range and spread of M. Massard’s repertoire and career.

The Recordings
 
R. Strauss: Feuersnot – 1956 (live radio broadcast; mono)
Orchestre Radio Lyrique/Manuel Rosenthal
Choeur et Maîtrise de la RTF
Kunrad – Robert Massard
Lisbeth – Christiane Castelli
La Bailli – Jean Giraudeau
Le Bourgmestre – Lucien Lovano
Elsbeth – Fréda Betti
Wigelis – Marthe Coustey
Margret – Odile Parrat
Pöschel – André Vessières
Kofel – Pierre Saugey
Kunz Gilgenstock – Jean Lavaud
Tulbeck – Joseph Peyron
Hämerlein – Pierre Germain
Ursula – Marguerite Mirtal
Aspeck – Claude Devos
Walpurg – Mathilde Siderer
 
This earliest recording here really is a rarity – and an oddity, too: a French translation of Richard Strauss’ second opera Feuersnot which was considered bawdy and shocking in its day, hymning the redemptive qualities of erotic love. I have been unable to trace the origin or label of the recording, so am reviewing it just as M. Massard supplied it to me, as Les feux de la Saint Jean – poème lyrique (Ein Singgedicht).

It is given a very spirited performance here by a large and able cast, so swift and propulsive that it fits onto one CD rather than my modern recording which on the Arts label spills onto two at over ninety minutes, but the sound is poor – muddy, peaky and distorted, with the words of the chorus mostly so occluded as to be unintelligible. However, the soloists are much clearer; Massard’s firm, bright – and clearly youthful – baritone makes quite an impact on his entry and the quality of his voice emerges even through the sonic haze and mush. The ease of his high notes is especially apparent, as is his stamina in the sustained high tessitura of the love duet.

Rosenthal drives the score hard at times – no “need for/lack of fire” here - bringing out the galumphing, rustic quality of the ebullient waltz passages but easing up for the more lyrical sections, such as Kunrad’s central “Feu de gloire! Feu d’amour!” and his long monologue just before the glorious concluding orchestral section depicting the ecstasy of sexual union – a forerunner of a similar passage in Strauss’ Symphonia Domestica written a couple of years later. I think we can deduce what was often on Strauss’ mind and at the root of his musical inspiration.

The sound here is too primitive to permit this recording being of anything other than historical interest but it certainly gives in insight into the versatility and expertise of the Parisian company delivering it and the splendour of the thirty-year-old Massard’s baritone.
 
Rossini: Le Comte Ory – 1959 (live radio broadcast; mono) Arkadia
RAI Torino/Vittorio Gui
Chorus - RAI Torino
Le Comte Ory - Michel Sénéchal
La Comtesse Adèle - Sari Barabas
Alice - Jeannette Sinclair
Isolier - Cora Canne-Meijer
Ragonde - Monica Sinclair
Raimbaud - Robert Massard
Le Gouverneur - Raffaele Ariè

Gui recorded this for EMI in 1956 with four of the same cast members as in this live broadcast but here Massard sings Raimbaud instead of his contemporary French colleague at the Opéra-Comique and the Paris Opéra, Michel Roux. His is the first voice we hear and its strength and elegance are unmistakable, as ever and is always detectible, in the best possible way, in ensembles. He makes the most of his patter song when he narrates discovering the wine cellar and it amply illustrates his verbal facility before he launches with elan into the catchily swinging tune of “Ah! Quel jour de fête”, making light of its ornamentation.

The cast is distinguished and experienced, headed by two English singers both named Sinclair and the celebrated French lyric character tenor Michel Sénéchal, whose reedy voice is equally recognisable. Bulgarian Raffaele Ariè’s French is only passable but he sings commandingly and is given the cavatina “Veiller sans cesse” and Scene 6 omitted in the EMI studio recording. This is a very tuneful and engaging opera, subtler than the Barber and the lightness of its treatment here serves it well; all the singers have a strong sense of Rossinian style and sound as if they are enjoying themselves. Hungarian coloratura soprano Sari Barabas was very much at home with the role and tessitura of the Countess. Monica Sinclair was renowned for her stentorian contralto and comic timing and her namesake Jeanette sings peasant girl Alice prettily.

The mono sound here is clean and bright with only a little blare, more noticeable in the ensembles when there is a fair amount of congestion – but it remains very listenable. The Arkadia issue comes with a bonus of excerpts from a 1952 live performance in Italian with the same Countess, Nicola Monti and Giulietta Simionato as “Isoliero” in sound no better – but no worse – than one might expect for the era and provenance.
 
Massenet: Hérodiade - 1961 (studio; stereo – excerpts) Accord
Orchestra - Orchestre Lyrique de Paris/Jésus Etcheverry
Salomé - Michèle Le Bris
Hérodiade - Denise Scharley
Jean - Guy Chauvet
Hérode - Robert Massard
Phanuel - Adrien Legros

This is a commercial recording of an hour’s excerpts by a fine cast caught in excellent stereo sound. Le Bris does not quite have the sensual sound required for Salomé despite her dramatic flair; there is something of an edge in her tone. Guy Chauvet is an urbane Jean, strong-voiced but a tad constricted and not really rugged enough, and Denis Scharley makes a competent Hérodiade; it is not just my bias which leads me to observe that Massard’s is the finest voice here and he is given two big arias and makes something special of them with the combination of his attention to text and resplendent top notes and in his attempt to win his stepdaughter’s affections he manages to sound both seductive and creepy – and finishes the second aria with a thrilling, sustained top A. A beautiful voice like his is a double-edged weapon, as it is difficult to make villains credible while singing so elegantly but Massard humanises Hérode and Macbeth without sentimentalising them.

Massenet: Thaïs (studio; stereo) Accord
Orchestre et Choeurs/Jésus Etcheverry
Thaïs - Renée Doria
Athanaël - Robert Massard
Nicias - Michel Sénéchal
Palémon - Gérard Serkoyan
Crobyle - Françoise Louvay
Myrtale - Jeannine Collard
Albine - Jeannine Collard
Servant - Jacques Scellier

I reproduce here an (adapted) review first posted on Amazon in 2016:

The cast is absolutely first rate and the stereo sound excellent but the caveat is that its value is compromised for anyone who demands the full score - at least the full score as devised by Massenet four years after its premiere, when he added the Oasis scene to Act III. That scene is included here but unfortunately Athanaël's Temptation and Vision scene, which should follow it, has been chopped. There are also some cuts in Act II, yet we get the ballet music complete. Otherwise, it is a wonderful souvenir of the best of French opera performance in the early 60's.

So this is not an "enregistrement intégral" despite the claim on the cover and I would suggest that the recording which provides the best performance of the whole thing is the most recent studio version conducted by Yvel Abel and starring Renée Fleming in top form and a more than adequate Thomas Hampson. Nonetheless, despite the luxuriance of her voice, Fleming does not have quite the Gallic authenticity of her namesake Doria and he does not have the vocal heft, intensity and beauty of tone of my favourite French baritone, Robert Massard, who is better at capturing the combination of sensitivity, sensuality, vulnerability and obsessiveness of the character. However, both baritones share the gift of excellent French and pellucid diction. The microphone tends occasionally to catch a shrillness which was not apparently noticeable live but otherwise Doria is ideal, with a shimmering, sensuous quality to her voice and terrific top notes, including sustained top Ds, one of which is held twice as long as the score demands on the concluding "éternellement" of her most famous aria - and all the better for it. To complete the trio, Michel Sénéchal makes a captivating, grainy-voiced Nicias, eminently louche and likeable. The chorus and orchestra are first rate from the first notes of the atmospheric prelude which strikes the note of exoticism so typical of Massenet at his indulgent best; the orchestra has a kind of resinous, slightly nasal quality characteristic of French bands before the homogenisation of orchestral sound worldwide. Just listen to the salt-spray-soaked introduction to the musical depiction of Alexandria which precedes, and whose theme then pervades, Athanaël's apostrophe to the city of his birth; it's magically scored and played.

The best moments all come off in this recording, including the lovely quartet when the hussies are dressing up the would-be saint and the gorgeous duet between Athanaël and Thaïs, "Baigne d'eau tes mains" which cements their rapprochement.

Verdi: Rigoletto - 1961 (studio; stereo)
Orchestre et Choeurs/ Jésus Etcheverry
Rigoletto - Robert Massard
Gilda - Renée Doria
Duca di Mantova - Alain Vanzo
Sparafucile - Adrien Legros
Maddalena - Denise Scharley
Monterone - Jean-Pierre Laffage
Borsa - Camille Rouquetty
Conte di Ceprano - Jacques Scellier
Contessa di Ceprano - Micheline Dupré
Un paggio - Agnes Adam
Johanna - Agnes Adam
Marcello - Michel Forel

I reproduce here the (adapted) review from my survey of this opera:

Robert Massard has one of the most graceful, flexible and powerful baritones to grace the operatic stage, clean in line, flawless in legato and always tonally alluring. Nor is he short on dramatic punch, as you may hear in his monologues.

In addition, we hear the foremost lirico-spinto tenor of his day, Alain Vanzo, another graceful and infinitely subtle singer with thrust and ping to spare without ever compromising the essential sweetness of his voice. Vanzo's career, like that of Massard, was largely confined to France despite some celebrated international appearances. Renée Doria was a foremost French coloratura soprano with a touch of the soubrette in her voice which is not unsuitable to the depiction of the innocent Gilda. She has top notes to spare; both she and Massard take with ease the traditional high options, she even hitting D sharp at the end of her duet with her father. Their "Piangi, piangi" (or rather, "Pleure, pleure") duet is wonderfully sung with the ideal long Verdian line and some really moving use of portamenti from Doria. The famous quartet, led with such aristocratic restraint by Vanzo's seductively sung Duke, is unusually delicate and again, exquisitely sung. The splendid bass Adrien Legros makes a black-browed Sparafucile and the Madeleine is a first-rate artist with a gratifying lower register.

The supporting cast is all francophone and the opera is really very successfully translated into French, with many phrases echoing the original Italian gratefully but introducing a touch of Gallic piquancy to proceedings, just as the grainy French woodwind lend distinction to the playing.

Etcheverry's conducting is never rushed but equally never lacks tension; he has a superb ear for rallentando and rubato, such that the pacing of the opera seems just right. The taped storm sound effects played over the music are quaint and superfluous but the mood of menace is unerringly built, culminating in the terrifying climax when Gilda enters the den to her death. If this had been recorded in Italian it would be one of the top few recommendations for a standard recording. If these artists were singing today, they would be internationally acclaimed stars yet this is essentially a domestic French in-house recording. The stereo sound is good for 1961, although voices are very forward and the orchestra too recessed.

Rigoletto in French? Why not? I love it and for me this recording is up there with those starring Gobbi, Merrill and Warren.

Gounod: Mireille – 1962 (studio; stereo) Accord
Orchestre Symphonique et Choeur de Paris/Jésus Etcheverry
Mireille - Renée Doria
Vincent - Michel Sénéchal
Taven - Solange Michel
Ourrias - Robert Massard
Vincenette - Christiane Stutzmann
Maître Ramon - Adrien Legros
Ambroise - Julien Thirache
Clémence - Agnès Noël
Le passeur - Claude Genty
Le berger - Aimé Doniat
Une voix en haut - Agnès Noël

I reproduce here an (adapted) review first posted on Amazon in 2013:

I hesitated to acquire this largely forgotten opera by Gounod as, despite my love of certain highlights in Faust and Roméo et Juliette, I find both operas to have worn badly, containing too much which is saccharine and stagey. However, this recording made in 1962 reveals it to be an opera with more charm and depth than might first be suspected. Much of the music is rooted, we are reliably informed in the notes and by the witness of our own ears, in the folk music of Provence, hence the rustic dances are often underscored by a pungent melancholy further enhanced by Gounod's very varied and resourceful orchestration which includes frequent use of a plangent trumpet, the oboe to suggest the musette (bagpipe) and celestial harps.

While Plasson's more recent recording has held the field for some years, the singing here is much more reliably and authentically French than in the EMI recording, which has the charming Mirella Freni as the heroine, and this matters when the text is so transparent. Renée Doria was a celebrated lyric-coloratura-dramatic soprano and although her singing can be shrill, she is accomplished and assured. Archetypally Gallic tenor Michel Sénéchal's reedy, grainy voice is well suited to the rather weedy hero Vincent and he makes a stylish job of the celebrated aria "Ange du paradis" even if he is no Alain Vanzo. I was particularly drawn to this recording by the presence of favourite French baritone Robert Massard, whose lean, muscular sound is such balm to the ears compared with any of the woolly, quasi-Italianate barkers we might have had in the role of the semi-villain Ourrias. His big death scene when he is overcome with remorse for having assaulted our hero, is a highlight with some eerie, striking touches. Mezzo Solange Michel has a warm rich, warm voice. The rest of the entirely French cast is by and large very satisfying, most with a typically French fast vibrato.

Etcheverry's conducting is wholly idiomatic and propulsive; his briskness counteracts any tendency towards mawkishness and he is excellent at bringing out the felicities of Gounod's instrumental colouration.

The sound is really good stereo apart from some pre and post echo audible on headphones or at high volume. A full, bilingual libretto and interesting, informative notes are provided and the shades-of-green packaging is very attractive.

The poetry of Gounod's invention made this opera a favourite of Renaldo Hahn; I am surprised by how positively I, too, respond to its sensual melodiousness, even if a sweet tooth is required to respond to a typically sentimental conclusion with an angelic "voice on high" calling Mireille to eternal bliss. Still, Verdi used that too, in Don Carlos, so let's not be picky.

Massenet: Hérodiade - 1963 (live; mono)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir/Alain Lombard
Salomé - Régine Crespin
Hérodiade - Rita Gorr
Jean - Guy Chauvet
Hérode - Robert Massard

With a cast like this, this live concert performance should have been the answer to the Massenet-lover’s dreams, but unfortunately it is recorded in the dimmest, most distant and crumbly mono sound possible – it must have been made on a primitive hand-held machine from somewhere in the gods, as creaks and coughs are much more immediate than what’s happening on stage. I cannot in all conscience recommend it, especially as you may hear the main subject of this article in first-rate sound in excerpts in the previous recording. This has to come with a health warning; only the hardiest and most determined of historical-recording buffs could endure it.

Saint-Saëns: Samson et Dalila – 1970 (live; stereo) Opera d’Oro
Orchestra & Chorus - Teatro alla Scala/ Georges Prêtre
Samson - Richard Cassilly
Dalila - Shirley Verrett
Le Grand Prêtre de Dagon - Robert Massard
Abimélech - Giovanni Foiani
Le Vieillard Hébreu - Leonardo Monreale
Le messager philistin - Piero De Palma
Premier philistin - Gianfranco Manganotti
Deuxième philistin - Silvio Maionica

I reproduce here my review from my survey of this opera:

Not even the very close, blaring sound here can prevent me from recommending this; it is by no means unlistenable with a will and the sheer brilliance and vitality of what must have been a stunning evening at La Scala persuades me to give this searing performance the most enthusiastic endorsement.

Indeed, the cast here is a dream team: a thirty-nine-year-old Shirley Verrett in finest form and most voluptuous voice, her lower register trenchant and her top notes coruscating, bringing enormous power and sensuality to the femme fatale Dalila. Just the occasional guttural over-emphasis when attacking notes mars her line but that is the result of her immersion in her role. Similarly, I have never heard Richard Cassilly in better voice; his bright, open, secure tenor encompasses all the demands of his heroic role and his French, as with all the principals, is excellent. My bliss is made complete by the presence of my favourite French baritone Robert Massard as the High Priest - which was his début role back in 1952 - and a fine, steady, grave Old Hebrew in Leonardo Monreale. Giovanni Foiani's Abimélech has a rather quavery vibrato but he doesn't let the side down.

To cap it all, I have never heard Georges Prêtre conduct better. He is yielding and languorous in Dalila's arias but really fired up in the Bacchanale and he pushes the whole drama along without defaulting into his habitual brusqueness.

If you love this opera as I do, you need to hear this.

[Opera d'Oro has mislabelled the tracking: CD1 has ten tracks, not eight, thus going into Act II; CD2 has only six tracks, not eight.]
 
Verdi: Macbeth - 1973 (live radio broadcast; stereo)
Orchestre Radio Lyrique/Bruno Amaducci
Choeurs de l’ORTF
Macbeth: Robert Massard
Lady Macbeth: Michèle Le Bris
Banco: Pierre Thau
MacDuff: André Turp

This is a neat, trim, pacy – indeed often very fast - performance with a characterful chorus of witches, a fine cast of soloists and an orchestra in fine form, very crisp and responsive – and one which even succeeds in making the superfluous ballet music interesting.

Massard’s Italian is excellent – indeed, rather better than that of Thau who, it seems cannot do proper rolled “r” and is a smooth-voiced, rather low-key Banco – and indicative of the importance he attached to text and dramaturgy as well as just singing the notes. One thing you will never hear in Massard’s singing is “l’expression plate” (flat, expressionless singing).

Massard’s voice is almost too noble for the regicide but fortunately he can inject a manic edge into his tone as required and his notably free top notes are especially telling. In addition, that nobility of the adds the requisite note of tragedy to proceedings as we sense that beneath the greed, ambition and craven bluster is a potentially decent man, hence his final aria, “Pietà, rispetto, amore” is illicitly moving and becomes a highlight. His “Banco! l'eternità t'apre il suo regno” is superb and he easily commands the long, legato lines of Macbeth’s music but also manages to sound deranged and hysterical in his mad scene during the banquet without shouting. The ensemble which follows, “Sangue a me quell'ombra chiede”, is a thrilling piece of theatre.

He is very well matched with Michèle Le Bris, who has a sizeable voice with the right “cupped” or “hooded” quality for the evil Lady and a certain wildness in alt which is not inappropriate. Her assumption of the role recalls Wagner’s Ortrud more than any other I have heard except perhaps Christa Ludwig.

André Turp is a hefty and adequate, if rather clumsy-voiced Macduff.

This is in good radio sound with a little pre-echo, the occasional pop and click of interference and some distortion on loud notes but nothing serious. The audience is clearly highly appreciative and rightly vociferous in their approval.

(My own copy indicates that this is the original 1847 edition but it is in fact the usual 1865 Paris revision.)

Giordano: Andrea Chénier - 1973 (live radio broadcast; stereo)
Orchestre Lyrique de l'O.R.T.F./Georges Sébastian
Choeurs de l'Opéra de l'O.R.T.F.
Andrea Chénier - Alain Vanzo
Carlo Gérard - Robert Massard
Madeleine di Coigny - Michèle Le Bris
La mulatta Bersi - Corinne Petit
La Contessa di Coigny - Marie-Luce Bellary
Madelon - Geneviève Macaux
Roucher - Robert Geay
Il sanculotto Mathieu - Jean-Pierre Laffage
Fouquier Tinville - Stanislaus Staskiewicz
Un Incredible - Michel Sénéchal
Pietro Fléville - Robert Geay
L'abate - Joseph Peyron
Dumas - Paul Mahé
Il maestro di casa - Paul Mahé

There is another starry cast here: Alain Vanzo was the “go-to French tenor” for decades who was ever quite a front-rank, global star but earned the respect of audiences and colleagues alike. His crystalline diction and distinctive timbre are very attractive, and even if he obviously doesn’t have the heft of Corelli or Del Monaco, he sings with passion and power, making a fine job of his big arias and convincing us of Chénier’s idealistic ardour – and the live audience recognise his prowess with thunderous applause.

One gets the impression that although he is by no means unable to encompass its demands, Massard is pushing his lovely lyric baritone to its limits in the role of Gérard; we are perhaps more used to a bronzed Italianate tone of the kind we hear in Bechi, Bastianini and Milnes, but other singers of Massard’s voice-type, such as Mario Sereni, also sang this role successfully. He has no problem with its tessitura and brings plenty of venomous bite to his imprecations upon the aristocracy. The centrepiece aria is “Nemico della patria?!”and it is here given a peerless account, gloriously sung but shot through with bitter cynicism and he is profligate with ringing top notes such as the two A flats in Act 3.

Le Bris is excellent as Maddalena: her capacious, vibrant, slightly grainy timbre reminds me of Tebaldi who also loved this role and she characterises very well: in the first scene she sounds spoilt and thoughtless, mature enough to know better but still silly and ripe for re-education. In Act 3, she finds a Callas-like intensity in her lower register for the exchange with Gérard and “La mamma morta”.

The other star here is the versatile and instantly recognisable Michel Sénéchal, one of the great French character tenors, as the Spy.

The stereo sound is excellent – clear and undistorted - but one peculiarity really compromises my enjoyment and that is the cetacean groans emitted by – presumably – the conductor.

A final peculiarity: obviously a piece from the end of Act 2 of this live broadcast went missing and someone has patched it with two brief excerpts from the EMI and Decca studio recordings with Franco Corelli and Antonietta Stella, and Ettore Bastianini respectively. Thus from 22:34 to 24:00 it is EMI, then from 24:00 to the brass fanfare at the end of Band 2 it is Decca, then the broadcast is resumed, ending with roars of “Bravo” from the audience. Clearly someone did this with the best of intentions and I admit to feeling rather smug about having detected the origins of the “restoration work”!

Massenet: Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame - 1973 (studio; stereo) Le Chant du Monde; Gala
Orchestre Philharmonique de l'O.R.T.F./Pierre Dervaux
Choeur de Radio-France - Maîtrise de la Radiodiffusion Française
Jean - Alain Vanzo
Boniface - Robert Massard
Le Prieur - Jules Bastin
Un moine peintre - Yves Bisson
Un moine poete - Jean Dupouy
Un moine musicien - Claude Meloni
Un moine sculpteur - Pierre Thau
Angel 1 - Christiane Issastel
Angel 2 - Jeannine Collard

Recorded in excellent stereo sound, this is a little gem for devotees of Massenet’s rare opera – which used to be very popular but has long dropped out of the repertoire. Its delicate tracery of music is expertly conducted here and the all-male soloists feature the most celebrated trio of francophone singers imaginable in Vanzo, Bastin and Massard and a fine supporting cast. It is a charming, naïve work – really a modern take on a medieval “miracle play” - with jolly crowd scenes, a lovely monks’ chorus and a principal role which calls for a sweet-voiced tenor capable of creating pathos – enter Alain Vanzo; ideal. (Five years later Vanzo made a fine studio recording in which Bastin moved up to Boniface but he is surely more apt as the Prior.)

Robert Massard’s part in proceedings is not that great beyond his singing the best-known aria in the work, “La légende de la sauge” and his announcement of the Virgin’s miraculous blessing of Jean. As always, his cultivated tones are almost too refined to portray credibly a simple soul like Boniface but his acute powers of characterisation can always be relied upon to overcome that. He makes the aria a centrepiece, elevating it into another realm with his soft singing and tender phrasing before defaulting into the bluff Boniface the monk who’s the chef and loves his grub.
(On the Chant du Monde issue, this is paired with a 1963 mono recording of La Navarraise with Alain Vanzo, Geneviève Moizan and bass Jacques Mars, conducted by Jean-Claude Hartemann.)

Reyer: Sigurd – 1973 (studio; stereo) Le Chant du Monde
Orchestre Philharmonique et Choeur de l'O.R.T.F./Manuel Rosenthal
Sigurd – Guy Chauvet
Brunehild – Andréa Guiot
Gunther – Robert Massard
Hilda – Andrée Espositi
Uta – Denis Scharley
Le Grand-Prêtre – Ernest Blanc
Hagen – Jules Bastin
Le Barde – Nicola Christou
Irnfrid – Jean Dupouy
Rudiger – Bernard Demigny
Hawart – Claude Meloni
Ramune – Jean-Louis Soumagnas

I reproduce here an (adapted) review first posted on Amazon in 2015:

First performed in 1884, of Wagnerian length at just over three hours and with a plot which uses the same elements adapted from the Lay of the Nibelungs that we find in the last scene of Siegfried and the three Acts of Götterdämmerung, the similarities between Sigurd and Wagner's mammoth works are nonetheless coincidental, as Reyer's sketches predate the first performances in Paris of the last parts of the Ring by nearly two decades. It has since borne the fate of being first overshadowed then eclipsed by Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerke.

It was in fact in some ways as retrogressive as Wagner's music was innovative, being very much in the tradition of French heroic Grand Opera and evidently heavily indebted to French predecessors, especially Berlioz, echoes of whom are constant throughout the opera. At times a little bombastic, it thus at its worst recalls the empty pomp of Meyerbeer, although despite the heavy orchestration with its over-use of cymbals, I found that although a libretto is available on the Internet - French only - no translation - I had no need of recourse to it, so clear is the diction of the artists recorded here. The frequent use of shimmering strings and the deployment of heavy brass do seem to recall Wagner but that, too, must be coincidental and more often than not I found myself remembering features of Berlioz's two great operas, Les troyens and Benvenuto Cellini and there are passages of "spirit music" in Act II which anticipate Massenet's Esclarmonde. not performed until 1889.
Although Wagner by no means invented its use, another Wagnerian feature in Sigurd is the use - indeed, over-use - of motifs. Wagner made much more subtle and varied use of them, whereas Sigurd's theme - a heroic, stentorian, ascending brass figure - and Brunehild's calling card, "La Valkyrie est ta conquête", are decidedly over-exposed, although at least memorable and effective, which cannot be said of all Reyer's melodies. He has a fine sense of the dramatic and his orchestration is striking, but he does not share Berlioz's melodic fecundity. He can resort to "note-spinning" and his long tunes are sometimes either too diffuse or too obvious, hence the two-note minor-third invocation of the gods sounded in the opening and throughout Act II is rather crude and over-repetitive.

The opera is especially strong in ensembles of a rousing nature such as the drinking and hunting choruses, and also duets, trios and quartets, such as the confrontations between Hilda and Brunehild over their love for Sigurd - where the Hilda's opening phrases. "Jeune reine, ma soeur" remind us of Gluck, another influence over Reyer - the extended duet between Brunehild and Gunther in Act III, the trio in Act II "Ô Brunehild, ô vierge armée" and little gems like the music for the quartet of Attila's emissaries in Act I. Sigurd's death is a little anticlimactic musically, although the build-up to his murder is similar in tension and atmosphere to the scene in Pelléas et Mélisande just before Golaud stabs Pelléas, and Brunhild's lament "Sigurd est mort" strikes home. The apotheosis of the last scene is highly effective if musically conventional.

The cast could hardly be bettered, featuring some of the best French singers of the era. This was a studio recording in 1973; the stereo sound, conducting, playing and singing could hardly be better given its provenance, the chorus being lusty and committed, the orchestral sound first rate and Rosenthal's direction utterly apt. Andréa Guiot's Brunehild appears a little earlier than Wagner's Brünnhilde in Siegfried, but still not until half way through the opera and it's worth the wait: she has a big, creamy, vibrant sound worthy of a mortal who was formerly a goddess and she has less edge and "scratch" in her voice than Crespin, who also liked this role. Andrée Esposito is fine as a febrile Hilda and mezzo Denise Scharley similarly satisfying as her nurse. Listening to excerpts sung by Georges Thill and César Vezzani makes you realise just how marvellous the role of Sigurd can be made to sound by a tenor of exceptional quality but Guy Chauvet does not let the side down. He has a rather hard, constricted sound and begins a little tentatively, struggling a little with his top notes, but he soon warms up and makes a great job of his big aria, "Esprits gardiens", starting in a melting mezza voce before swelling his tone into full voice. A great treat for me is hearing Robert Massard, the finest French baritone of his generation and in my opinion a much under-rated singer. His French baritone counterpart, Ernest Blanc, a Bayreuth regular as Telramund, is also impressive as the High Priest with his dark, grainy tone. Belgian bass Jules Bastin is in fine voice as Hagen, making much of his spritely aria announcing Gunther's nuptials. The only relative blot is the growly, unsteady Bard with his uncertain intonation in low notes.

Unfortunately, this wonderful memento of a once prized but now nearly forgotten has not been re-issued since its first appearance on CD in 1989 and copies are rare. I obtained mine on eBay from a gifted private producer and sound restoration specialist friend who makes transfers from LP to CD of very high quality for private use; as a bonus, arias by Thill and Crespin are appended. It is by no means a perfect work but I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it twice through with hardly a break.
 
Bizet: Don Procopio - 1975 (studio; stereo) Le Chant du Monde
Orchestre Lyrique de l'O.R.T.F./Bruno Amaducci
Choral Lyrique de l'O.R.T.F.
Don Procopio - Jules Bastin
Don Odoardo - Alain Vanzo
Don Ernesto - Robert Massard
Don Andronico - Ernest Blanc
Pasquino - Jean-Louis Soumagnas
Donna Bettina - Mady Mesplé
Donna Eufemia - Lyliane Guitton

This is the youthful Bizet’s Don Pasquale, with a virtually identical plot and a deliberate stylistic homage to Donizetti; the big difference is that Bizet employs passages of spoken dialogue. It provides the opportunity to hear again the comic gifts, Massard displays most brilliantly in his Fieramosca for Colin Davis’ Benvenuto Cellini.

What casting in depth and strength here in 1975 in Paris – the line-up is stellar indeed, with five top French singers and two more who might not be as well-known or remembered but are still pleasing to listen to – even if there is more than a touch of “Minnie Mouse” shrillness to Mesplé’s soubrette soprano. Furthermore, joy of joys, it is in excellent studio, stereo sound. It is in fact a delight from start to finish – an hour of untrammelled comic pleasure as long as you are not seeking profundity. There is a lot of patter-song ensemble of the most entertaining, if conventional, nature; Bizet just keeps the whole thing bowling along expertly in a manner which would have graced Rossini. The ensembles, in particular, are close cousins to Rossini’s but rise above being mere pastiche and there is more than a touch of “Tornami a dir che m'ami” to the concluding lovers’ duet.

I am sure that the interludes of spoken Italian dialogue are spoken not by the singers but native Italian speakers and the haphazard mismatch of spoken to singing voices is as it almost always is in such arrangements. However, the singers’ diction, too, is very good – especially, of course, that of Massard, who was always punctilious about verbal proficiency. He has some music which permits him to show off his evenness of line, facility with coloratura and breath control and he does some absolutely captivating things with his voice, especially in his first aria, "Non v'e signor di lei", when three times he sails effortlessly up to a perfectly poised, pure pianissimo-falsetto B flat falling to A flat – such a treat to hear so virile a voice caress a phrase so beguilingly. If I were to choose just one example to illustrate the supremacy of his voice, this would be it.

Vanzo has a plangent aria from the school of Donizetti’s comedies, reminiscent of Ernesto’s “Com'è gentil”. Jules Bastin has fun as he always did in comic roles with his intrinsically comical bass. Mesplé tweets and twitters away engagingly.

This another gem of a recording, worth hearing for Massard’s contribution alone, but offering much more besides.

Bizet: Le docteur Miracle – 1975 (studio; stereo) Opera d’Oro
Orchestre National de la R.T.F./Bruno Amaducci
Choeurs National de Radio France
Laurette - Christiane Eda-Pierre
Véronique - Lyliane Guitton
Le Podestat - Robert Massard
Silvio - Rémy Corazza
Pasquin - Rémy Corazza

I reproduce here an (adapted) review first posted on Amazon in 2011:

I imagine that its rarity value encouraged Opera d'Oro to issue this muffled 1971 radio broadcast of this operetta, which is a companion piece to the preceding Bizet recording. Still more surprising was their decision to offer a second deluxe version with a partial libretto under their "Grand Tier" label when you can get it under their usual bargain label. If you don't speak French, this presents you with a dilemma, as your enjoyment will be enhanced by having the text but the quality of this recording militates against spending much on it: a low hum and an intermittent whistling persist throughout; often upper frequencies disappear and the proceedings can sound very dim and muddy indeed, especially towards the end of the operetta.

The packaging is absurdly overdone: the whole thing, single CD, libretto, notes, synopsis and all will happily slide into a single CD case and hardly needs a double jewel box and cardboard slipcase - even Rafal Olbinski's trendy, surreal artwork is included in the leaflet so you don't need the latter.

Apart from the sound, a further irritation resides in that favourite and inexplicable flaw so frequently heard in recordings where spoken dialogue alternates with sung material: a total mismatch between the actors' and singers' voices. The actor voicing le Podestat (the Mayor) growls and grumbles his lines with maximum over-emphasis yet the corresponding singer, Robert Massard, has an exceptionally suave and mellifluous baritone; the discrepancy in the celebrated "Omelette quartet" between the spoken ejaculation "Exécrable!" and Massard's taking up of the tune could hardly be more absurd. As it is, much of the spoken dialogue is omitted from the libretto but the plot is simplicity itself, with elements familiar from more celebrated operas concerning the efforts of young lovers to circumvent their elders' attempts to keep them apart such The Barber of Seville and of course operas featuring "medical miracles" such as L'elisir d'amore and Così fan tutte.

My final annoyance is in fact immediately apparent: apparently the source tape was missing the opening thirty or so bars so the overture is gradually faded in.

Having adumbrated the disadvantages, I must redress the balance by confirming that there is much light, charming music to delight here. Written when Bizet was only eighteen years old and based on a French adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "St Patrick's Day", Le docteur Miracle contains echoes of Rossini and passages anticipatory of Carmen; the greatest pleasure comes from the lively ensembles. All four singers are accomplished artists, especially Massard, the epitome of elegant French baritones. Christiane Eda-Pierre's creamy, plaintive soprano occasionally skirts a certain under-the-note quality but she is an accomplished and touching singer with an excellent trill; her aria "Ne me grondez pas" is reminiscent of Teresa's aria "Je vais le voir" from Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini which Eda-Pierre recorded under Colin Davis. Lyliane Guitton is excellent as Véronique and Rémy Corazza a bit bleaty in the tenor role but wholly in genre; his voice reminds me very much of Welsh tenor Ryland Davies. The Radio France orchestra is rather dim but plays well and Amaducci's conducting is idiomatic.

It's a pity that its recorded sound compromises this fluffy but enjoyable rarity but it is still worth acquiring for its intrinsic, Gallic charm and the quality of the performance.

Delibes: Lakmé -1979 (live radio broadcast; stereo)
Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique/Henri Gallois
Lakmé: Ruth Welting
Gérard: Ginès Sirera
Nilakantha: Robert Massard
Mallika: Zoila Muñoz
Frédéric: Alain Munier
Rose: Micaëla Etcheverry
Ellen: Thérèse Cédelle
Mrs Benston: Claude Vierne
Jadji: Osvaldo Tourne

This light opera is almost a hybrid with operetta and is of course most famous for two numbers, the “Flower Duet” and “Bell Song”, although the tenor aria “Fantaisie aux divins mensonges” will occasionally feature in recitals, too.

The principal singers are in excellent voice: Massard is ideally firm, resonant and baleful as the vengeful Brahmin priest; Ruth Welting is sweet and virtuosic as his daughter, the deified priestess; indeed, her singing is divine; Ginès Sirera is not so well remembered these days but he had an attractive, genuine French tenor like a lighter Alain Vanzo which is ideal for the role of Gérard and he receives the warmest and longest round of applause for his aria.

Massard gives a particularly moving account of “Lakmé, ton doux regard se voile”, really humanising the hitherto two-dimensional Nilakantha, caressing the long line of the melody and combining ringing top notes with bass-like solidity below; he to, receives a deservedly prolonged round of applause.

Unfortunately, the sound is only intermittently acceptable – often dim, mushy and wavery with frequent drop-outs, when the left channel disappears altogether, most damagingly through the “Flower Duet”; the other problem is that my copy has the prelude and first chorus missing, so we lack the first seven minutes of music. There are otherwise also a number of cuts.

Not only is this a record of Massard’s fine singing, but it also serves to remind us of the talents of yet another gifted female singer who succumbed to cancer in her fifties, as did Arleen Augér, Lucia Popp, Tatiana Troyanos, Alfreda Hodgson and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson – such grievous losses.

It’s a pity, therefore, about the drop-outs, cuts and trying sound.

Grands Airs d'Opéras Français et Italiens ‎(LP – studio; stereo) Mondiophonie and Robert Massard baryton – Récital (LP – studio; stereo) Polaris
Orchestres Lyrique et Philharmonique de l'O.R.T.F./Jésus Etcheverry & Reynald Giovaninetti

Finally, I have a compilation CD of nineteen arias. The first two are lifted from the complete 1973 Andrea Chénier above, the rest, bar Escamillo’s aria, are transferred from two earlier LPs, presumably from the 60’s, which as far as I know are no longer commercially available. There are five more arias in Italian (one from each of Il barbiere, La traviata and Rigoletto and two from Un ballo in maschera) and eleven in French (Iphigénie en Tauride, two from each of Hamlet, Don Carlos and Hérodiade, then one from each of Les contes d’Hoffmann and Diaz’s - not Berlioz’s - Benvenuto Cellini, Faust and Thaïs).

These represent quite a range of the most heroic, dramatic and lyrical operatic arias for baritone; obviously the curiosity is the ‘Arioso de Benvenuto’, 'Combien de fois au jour a succedé la nuit'…"De l'art splendeur immortelle" from Eugeno/Eugène Diaz de la Peña’s Benvenuto Cellini. This used to be a staple of the baritone concert repertoire and was sung by such luminaries as Giuseppe de Luca and Emilio de Gorgoza, but the last time it was performed in the UK was by John Brownlee at the Proms as long ago as 1926. The melody is rather conventional but it is grandly sung.

The ‘Largo al factotum’ is rather crackly and the left channel is deficient it but allows us to hear a sample of Massard’s most oft-performed role and the ease, volume and flexibility of his singing in combination with his vivid portrayal are all a marvel – his linguistic facility with the tongue-twisting sections rivals that of any native singer. ‘Di Provenza il mar’ provides a complete contrast of legato and grace and is in better sound. The Rigoletto aria marks a complete change of tone, evincing first an Italianate bite to rival Milnes, MacNeil or Warren then when Rigoletto’s rage implodes and he starts to plead, Massard finds real pathos. The two arias from Un ballo in Maschera are exemplary; the first stern and admonitory, the second replete with the repressed anger and pain of betrayal.

We then change to the French repertoire beginning with an aria from Iphigénie en Tauride, which played a significant part in Massard’s career; the dignity of Gluck’s music suited his voice admirably. He first sang Thoas – more properly for a bass - in only his second professional role in a premiere under Giulini at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1952, then nearly a decade later in 1961 he was promoted to Oreste, first at the Edinburgh Festival, then Covent Garden. The following year, he sang that role in Florence and Marseille, then throughout the 60’s and 70’s he performed it regularly in Marseille, Buenos Aires, Paris, London, Lisbon and Geneva. The two arias from Hamlet are full of nuanced singing, making me appreciate more an opera which I have always ignored as rather dull and while I have never ignored Don Carlos, the delicacy and poignancy of Massard’s delivery of the French text in the two arias here make listen with fresh ears. His pre-eminence as a complex, fascinating, if repellent, Hérode is confirmed by his masterly performance of the next two operatic plums, complete with some sultry sax playing in the first. His ‘Air de Dappertutto – Scintille diamant’ was as new to me as his ‘Toreador Song’ and ‘Air de Valentin’ are familiar, but all are ideally sung and once again the ease and brilliance of the concluding top A flat in the Offenbach aria are so striking. The Carmen aria is, like the Chénier arias, from the complete recording – of course, the one with Callas; her voice joining in is unmistakable.

It is fitting that the recital ends with ‘L’air d’Athanaël’ from Thaïs, as in many ways Massard’s baritone is best showcased by Massenet’s music; it is here sung with impeccable fluency and passion.

Summing up
It is of some significance that Robert Massard was largely self-taught; he is in fact in good company in that regard, as great singers such as Franco Corelli, Mario Del Monaco and Feodor Chaliapin, to name but three, share that distinction. He relates an anecdote regarding the attempt of a voice teacher to persuade him early in his career to change Fach and become a tenor. He contemptuously dismissed that suggestion – and rightly, too; it seems that not only did he possess the gift of autodidacticism but he also had an innate understanding of his own potential - and indeed boundaries - as a singer.

Having listened, re-listened to and reviewed so many of his recordings, paying particular intention, obviously, to his contribution to them, I have been struck by just how versatile a singer he is. If I say that every aspect of fine singing seems to come easily to him, I do not mean to disregard what I know was the years of hard training and dedication which fostered that apparent facility – but that is how great singing sounds once the foundation has been laid. I recall a compliment which was applied by a French critic to Shirley Verrett: “Une voix qui peut pratiquement tout faire“ – “A voice which can do practically anything” - and that surely applies equally to Robert Massard. He encompassed in his career such a range of styles and techniques, from the tragic to the comic to the heroic, from the legato and agility of bel canto to the elegance and refinement of the French repertoire, to the weight and thrust required of the big Romantic, Italianate roles, and while he always gave equal prominence to texts and characterisation, he never sacrificed beauty of tonal emission to cheap effect. He is, in so many ways, a complete singer and a model for aspiring baritones today.

Ralph Moore

Note
Many of the recordings above may be heard in part or complete on YouTube; regrettable exceptions include the excellent Macbeth and Andrea Chénier, both from 1973.

May 2021



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