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Mady Mesplé: Le Rossignol des Lilas

« O premier rossignol qui viens dans les lilas, sous ma fenêtre, Ta voix m'est douce à reconnaître ! Nul accent n'est semblable au tien ! »

- Leopold Dauphin – Le rossignol des lilas

For some reason, France has always been generous when it comes to providing world stages with light, high sopranos. For instance, in the autumn of 1930, a young "chanteuse légère des casinos de Cannes et de Deauville," (who received no offers from the Paris Opéra or the Opéra-Comique) left France for America with the hope of having an operatic career. Thus, the rise of Lily Pons began. Almost from the start, she was a favorite of the American public and press. She transcended opera and entered into the popular culture of her time. Lily Pons made her Metropolitan Opera debut in Lucia di Lammermoor, on the afternoon of Saturday, 3 January 1931.

Two months later, in the shiny French city of Toulouse, Magdeleine (Mady) Mesplé was born on 7 March 1931. Her parents met each other in while singing in a chorale. As Mesple later said "Like the Italian masons, the people from Toulouse like to sing."

At four years old, little Mady went with her family for the first time to the Toulouse Opera, to see Faust. The same year, she took some musical lessons, and at ten she entered the Toulouse Conservatory. As a child, without knowing yet how to read a vocal score, but with a good musical instinct, she could be found singing all the opera characters, from bass to soprano! Finally she obtained a first prize in singing and piano from the Toulouse Conservatory.

There are a number of similarities between Lily Pons and Mady Mesple. Pons made her début in Lakmé, on 25 November 1927, at the Grand théâtre de Mulhouse, Mesplé also made her début in Lakmé, in 1953, at Liège Opera (Belgium). Lily Pons was 29 years old when she first sang Lakmé. Mady was 22. Mady Mesplé said that when she began her career, she was fascinated by Lily Pons, a glamorous and fashionable figure in the world of opera, and by her brilliant voice. That may be why Mesplé preferred the same quick tempo during the bell refrains of Lakmé's Bell Song as the "pocket diva."

After having studied repertoire with George Prêtre, she made her debut at the Paris Opéra-Comique, in 1956, again in Lakmé. Then began one of the most glorious careers of French sopranos. She sang Lucia di Lammermoor at Paris Opéra, just after Joan Sutherland, the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflote with Montserrat Caballe (Lausanne), Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos with Régine Crespin at Aix, The Hoffmann Olympia with Alfredo Kraus in Dallas, as well as many roles in Vienna, Miami, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Naples, Brussels, Chicago, London and Florence. In 1973 she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Gilda in Rigoletto. (An interesting footnote to her Met appearance is the fact that, as of this writing, Mesplé was the last soprano at the Metropolitan Opera to take an unwritten [but at the time traditional] high E ending to Caro nome.)

In 1960, Mesplé succeeded Mado Robin, tragically deceased, in Lakmé at the Paris Opéra-Comique. Mesplé has said that she learned much from Mado Robin, but that Maria Callas was also important to her for the knowledge of roles like Lucia.

Mesple's most famous role remains Lakmé but she was also known for performances as Rosina in the Barber of Seville, Oscar in Un ballo in maschera, Comtesse Adèle in Comte Ory, Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier and Norina in Don Pasquale. She recorded many other roles such as Philine in Mignon, Manon Lescaut (Auber), Mme. Herz in Mozart's one act opera, Der Schauspeildirektor, Sophie in Werther, Jemmy in Guillaume Tell, and Zerline in Fra Diavolo. Most of which were recorded for EMI. By 1971 she was also becoming known for her recital work - where she often championed modern works. Her recitals were quite popular - Mesplé knowing just the right way to create a comfortable intimacy with her public.

Oddly, Mady Mesplé is often associated with Operetta even though she only sang two operettas on stage: Valses de Vienne, and La vie parisienne, the last only once. The reason may be because she was featured on a number of Operetta recordings.

Different from most of her high-voiced colleagues, Mesple was also known for her strong support of modern works. These included many modern pieces by Henze (She premiered the French version of Elegy for young lovers in Nice), Schoenberg, Ohana, Mefano and Menotti (She premiered The Last Savage in Paris). Betsy Jolas and Charles Chaynes wrote some amazingly difficult works specifically for her voice. Mady Mesplé was indeed a versatile singer, who liked to sing grand opera, operetta, melodies, religious music, ancient music, contemporary music and even jazz – with jazzmen like Michel Legrand or Saxophonist Guy Laffite. In all these different musical types, there was always her musicality, her intelligence, and her voice.

As Mesplé has said herself, she was a soprano léger coloratura "je suis soprano léger donc je suis le soprano le plus haut et puis je suis colorature parce que je vocalise, c'est tout ». She is indeed a high coloratura – with an extensive wide range of almost 3 octaves up to high-A flat in public. During her prime (1965-1975) she could sing up to the high-B flat above high C but she never sang this note in public and no recordings exist of her highest note. Her high-A flat, however, can be heard in "Valses de Vienne" (EMI) and Chaynes' "Poèmes de Sapho" (EMI - no longer available). Her high notes were singular because they were easy, pure and liquid; almost surreal - floating and haunting.

My favorite Mesplé high note is the long, sustained high F sharp at the end of Ophelie's Mad Scene (French opera arias – EMI), beautiful, and very effective.

She often sang such stratospheric high notes as the infamous G (Mozart K. 316: Popoli di Tessaglia), Gretry's "L'air de la fauvette," high F# in Rossini's "Di piacer mi balza" (Gazza Ladra) or high-F (Lucia). She knew that a large part of her public expected such high notes and she knew she was gifted with her high register. Actually she mastered a very strong technique which allowed her to be very accurate. Her trills and staccati were exemplar – few other singers have matched her bell sounds in Lakmé.

A serious artist, Mesplé constantly worked on her technique and always worked her high notes for security. She also had a secure low register and unlike Pons for instance, she sang the lowest notes in "Una voce poco fa" and "L'air de la fauvette," unusual for a high coloratura. Like Pons, however, she was often afflicted with stage fright and froze before going on stage. One evening during a gala performance, when feeling especially nervous, she decided not to sing "Una voce poco fa" which had been originally programmed, but preferred rather to sing the simpler Ciboulette's couplets. Unfortunately, the orchestra had not been informed of the program change and so began to play Rosina's aria. Resigned to her fate, Mesplé conquered her fear, sang the aria perfectly - even ending the piece with a sustained high F.

If her high notes and technique were solid, they were only components of her instrument. Her distinctive timbre was another component with a rapid, tight vibrato and a clear tone. A realist, Mesplé knew that her voice did not appeal to everybody. She even said that her voice was sometimes "a rebel." It is true that sometimes when under pressure, her voice would get an edge and, unfortunately, the recording process has never been kind to her particular timbre. But it was a voice that was always right on pitch and musically used. Mady Mesplé says that if she was to start singing again, today, she probably would try to produce a more round sound, but the frontal, brighter sound was the French training at the time of her career.

It is interesting to listen to her early recordings before 1960: the vibrato is more present and the voice sounds limited at the top. Her voice was really at her best at the end of the 60s.

Fortunately, she made many records. In my opinion her best are the complete recordings of Lakmé, Zemire et Azor, Manon Lescaut, as well as the highlights albums of Valses de Vienne and highlights from Lucia di Lammermoor (in French) as well as les Quatre poèmes de Sapho, the French and Italian opera aria discs, and the duets with Nicolai Gedda, as well as her album of Strauss Waltzes.

I particulary enjoy her Doll Song (Hoffmann), sung with no ornamentation except for the traditional high E flat. To me she sounds like the most elegant of music-boxes. Actually, she could be considered an example for all the current Olympias who too often seem more preoccupied with adding high notes than with the musical line of Offenbach's music. I also think that her Lakmé is also perfection, not only because of the stylish singing but also because of the vulnerability of her character.

Mady Mesplé remains an ideal for the young generation of high sopranos. She is probably one of the most recorded of French sopranos and was one of the the most invited to appear on French TV shows of the time. Even though she has been retired for a number of years, Mady Mesplé is still very famous in France, and not only among opera goers. Mady Mesplé was also a fine actress and would have loved to be a movie actress. Actually she did some movies for French television such as Lakmé (1961), Lucien Leuwen (1972) or Le Château des Carpathes.

Since the 1980s, Mady Mesplé has also been known as a sought-after teacher, and an especially appreciated judge for international singing competitions.

Today, retired in her native city of Toulouse, Mady Mesplé enjoys music as much as before, and it's not unusual to see her as a spectator in opera houses and concert halls.

Paris, September 2005

 
Olivier Ojzerowicz
 

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