Émile Scaramberg (not Scaremberg, as the name is often spelled) was born on 26 April 1863 in the eastern city of Besançon, historical capital of France-Comté. After being educated in Paris, he took singing lessons in his native city with a tenor named Perrin, and also played the horn in a local military band. He completed his vocal training with Charles Nicot (1843–1899), whose daughter, taking the name Nicot-Vauchelet, became a distinguished Manon in Massenet’s opera.
Scaramberg made his Opéra-Comique debut in April 1893 in Grétry’s Richard Coeur-de-Lion. Édouard Noël and Edmond Stoullig, in their Annales du théâtre et de la musique, noted Scaramberg’s “very pretty voice, with a likeable timbre, moreover used in a most clever way.” He remained with the company for two years. He also began to appear at opera houses in the provinces—Bordeaux, Lyons (where he sang Werther), Marseilles, Nantes, Nice, and Vichy (where, in 1898, he was Fernand to Louise Homer’s Léonor in La favorite on the occasion of her stage debut). In 1894 he sang Turiddu at Monte Carlo. In the 1896–1897 season, he partnered Nellie Melba at Nice. In 1897, he made his Covent Garden debut as Dominique in the revival of Alfred Bruneau’s L’attaque du moulin, which had had its English premiere in 1894. For this London revival, Marie Brema was Marcelline and Jean Noté was Merlier. In London, Scaramberg also appeared as Raoul in Les Huguenots and as Roméo with Frances Saville, the California soprano, as Juliette. That same year, Scaramberg sang his first Tannhaüser in Antwerp. This probably brought him to the attention of the Belgian-Flemish composer Jan Blockx, in whose Herbergprinses (La princesse d’auberge) he sang the part of Merlyn at the French-language premiere in 1898 at the Théâtre de la Monnaie. Kutsch and Riemens mention that Scaramberg appeared at the Bolshoi Theater but do not specify dates or roles.
Recruited by Pedro Gailhard, director of the Opéra, who heard him in Bordeaux, Scaramberg made his Palais Garnier debut as Lohengrin on 23 May 1903, with Louise Grandjean as Elsa and subsequently Aïno Ackté. Stoullig, by then sole author of the Annales, commented on his “likeable voice” and “good stage presence.” His other roles at the Opéra were Roméo, opposite Jane Noria, who made her own debut as Juliette in 1903; Faust, which he sang often, especially during his first two seasons and notably in 1905 for the 1000th Parisian performance of the opera; the Duke of Mantua, invariably with Jean Noté as Rigoletto; Tannhaüser in 1904, with Ackté as Elisabeth; Raoul, with Lucienne Bréval as Valentine, also in 1904; Shabaharim, the second tenor role in Reyer’s Salammbô, alongside Bréval and Charles Rousselière; Don Ottavio, with Jean-François Delmas as Don Giovanni, in which role Stoullig pronounced Scaramberg “de style parfait.” In 1904, Scaramberg alternated with Albert Alvarez as Bar-Kokéba in Camille Erlanger’s Le fils de l’étoile, alongside Lucienne Bréval and Jean-François Delmas. In 1905 and 1906, he appeared as the Danish Knight in the first modern revival of Gluck’s Armide in Paris, with a splendid cast that included Lucienne Bréval in the title-role, Augustarello Affre as Renaud, Dinh Gilly as Ubalde, Jean-François Delmas as Hidraot, Alice Verlet as the Naiad, and Geneviève Vix as Melissa. His last major role at the Opéra was Radames, which he sang in 1906.
Sudden vocal difficulties cut short Scaramberg’s brilliant career in early 1907, and he spent the remainder of his professional life teaching singing in Besançon where he died in 1938.
The 31 recordings made by Émile Scaramberg in 1905–1906 are undeniably among the great treasures of pre-1914 French singing. They reveal a remarkably phonogenic voice of considerable intrinsic beauty, effortlessly produced, even throughout its range, admirably supported, and particularly impressive in piano singing. Equally importantly, they show Scaramberg to be a committed performer, a tasteful yet generous artist who, not just seemingly undaunted by the unenviable conditions under which the recordings were made, always conveys the impression that he is going to try to give the performance of his life. One can only marvel at the thought of the extraordinary roster of forts ténors the Paris Opéra had on its roster when he sang there between 1903 and 1907: Affre, Rousselière, Alvarez, Muratore, and others. On the evidence of his recorded legacy, Scaramberg may have been the best of them.
By contrast with our own time, when heroic tenors are so few and far between, many roles we now associate with lyric voices were then frequently entrusted to singers who would otherwise have made Lohengrin and Tannhaüser their daily bread. Considering that Scaramberg was Louise Homer’s partner when she debuted in La favorite at Vichy in 1898, it is fortunate that his Fernand is documented. He does not appear to have sung it in Paris, where Alvarez “owned” the part, but he must have been his equal in elegance and eloquence, judging by this ardent yet subtle performance. Its one oddity is the high C of “Ange si pur,” not reached at on the second syllable of “espoir,” as written, but attacked on the first syllable of “Envolez-vous”. While he sang neither Lakmé nor Mireille in Paris, both works being the preserve of the Opéra-Comique, he could have done so in the provinces or abroad. His recording of “Anges du paradis” from Mireille is a more positive performance than one usually gets. “Fantaisie aux divins mensonges,” Gerald’s act 1 aria, complete if lacking the recitative, is even more impressive, a performance of irresistible charm conveyed through exquisite mezza voce and culminating on two perfectly placed soft A-flats. The Duke of Mantua, often given to a fort ténor then, was one of his regular parts. His “Questa o quella” (in French, naturally) is suitably dashing, prettily and tastefully ornamented with grace notes, as was the fashion of the time. His first high A-flat, a little sharp, shows a small and unusual lapse of intonation. “Comme la plume au vent” is sung exactly as printed, that is without final cadenza or high B. It is also exemplary for its unforced elegance, a reminder that the Duke is supposed to be singing for himself. Roméo, a work that migrated from the Opéra-Comique to the Opéra in 1888, was also, as a consequence, generally entrusted to a bigger voice than we are used to. “Lève-toi, soleil” is sung in B-flat as printed in most editions (though Gounod is on record for preferring the original key of B-natural) and it is all one could hope for, with three ringing, luminous B-flats (the second held a little longer, and followed, like the first, by an exquisite diminuendo on “et”); in short, a performance in which the sun truly rises! This nonpareil Roméo can also be sampled in the Madrigal: his elegant, precise delivery, with a cleanly executed gruppetto at “Que nul n’a droit.” is unfortunately not matched by Georgette Bréjean-Silver’s indifferent, slightly strident Juliette. Historically the third in importance of the early Manons, Bréjean-Silver also partners Scaramberg in the opening section of the “Garden Duet” from Gounod’s Faust. Again, to this listener’s ears at least, she pales compared to her ardent and stylish suitor. As for Scaramberg’s recording of “Salut! Demeure” alas abbreviated, it is rightly considered a classic. One peculiarity which also characterizes Léon Beyle’s fine reading on the complete Pathé set, is that he reverses the word order in “se devine la présence” in order to sing his rapturous, head tone C on the second syllable of “devine.” “Inspirez-moi, race divine” from Gounod’s La reine de Saba (without recitative) is a seamless performance, comparable to Caruso in its sweep, and highlighting Scaramberg’s strong passage notes. “Je suis seul” from Manon—lacking its central part—is another classic, while “J’aurais sur ma poitrine” is, similarly, an impassioned, yet unexaggerated account. The Carmen aria is one Scaramberg is likely to have sung in concert, and what a fine José he would have been, with a stentorian A-flat on the final syllable of “je m’enivrais,” even though one may regret he did not attempt a pp final B-flat.
Of the genuinely heroic roles, perhaps the most impressive of Scaramberg’s recordings is “Prince du Rhin,” Sigurd’s act 1 entrance, though there is no evidence that he ever sang the part on stage. Taking the fiendish tessitura well in his stride, he delivers the text with a buoyant eloquence that is nothing short of thrilling. The short extract (“Atmest du nicht”) from Lohengrin, his Opéra debut role, shows what a superb, clear-voiced exponent of the part he must have been, with a lovely diminuendo on the pre-penultimate E-natural. His Vasco de Gama, another part he may have sung in the provinces, opens on a perfectly attacked soft G-flat and leads to two glorious Italianate B-flats on the open first syllable of “m’appartiens.” “Vesti la giubba” is finely enunciated with all the expressive effects—not least the opening laugh—integrated within the vocal line. “Amor ti vieta,” a comparative rarity in French, must have been recorded to coincide with the Paris premiere of Fedora in May 1905 at Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt (the former Théâtre-Lyrique building). His performance shows traces of Scaramberg’s mannerism of carrying the previous syllable onto the next note. Cavalleria rusticana was certainly not a rarity, immediately establishing itself as a staple of the Opéra-Comique repertory following its Parisian premiere in 1892. One is tempted to believe that Scaramberg sang the work in the provinces. If so, he would have been a Turiddu to reckon with. The two takes with piano accompaniment, presumably recorded on the same day, offer a fascinating comparison, and not simply because the piano accompaniment in the second one begins a few measures earlier. The first take may be more elegant, with more skillfully executed grace notes, while second shows one more ounce of commitment. Both end with the loveliest diminuendo—Verismo singing at its most refined.
Any fears that the sessions with orchestra might reveal some vocal deterioration, since they were made shortly before his sudden decline, are quickly dispelled—making the nature of the accident that befell the singer an even more tantalizing enigma. While “Anges du paradis” and the Lakmé aria are comparable in quality to the versions with piano, “Je suis seul” is even superior, with beautiful soft, meditative singing, and so is “J’aurais sur ma poitrine,” a strong performance about which one’s only regret is that it does not sufficiently observe Massenet’s abundant dynamic markings (but then who does?). The passionate rendering of the Fedora aria may also be preferred. As in the versions with piano, Turiddu’s Siciliana is irresistible, with similarly delicately executed grace notes. “Ah! Lève-toi, soleil” is hardly less impressive than the version with piano, and the forthright declamation is equally admirable. As for the three orchestral unica, these are real treasures. From the Opéra-Comique repertory, the aria from Si j’étais roi, a charming piece in its own right (first verse only), is limpidly sung. Werther’s “Ossian Lied” is very impressive and expressive, showing off Scaramberg’s beautiful low medium tones. If one has saved “Elle ne croyait pas” from Mignon for the end, it is because it shows off Scaramberg at this winning best, with exceptional legato and elegance, yet without the sense of detachment that the word might suggest. If you ever doubted that any joy of singing could be found in early 20th-century recordings, it can certainly be found there.
Pierre Cornubert was born on 14 May 1863 in Paris, where he studied singing at the Conservatoire. Hired by the Opéra-Comique in 1887, he made his debut as Daniel in Adam’s Le châlet on 30 November, the role he sang most often in the course of the next two years. This was just a few months after the Salle Favart had burned to the ground on the evening of 25 May, ten minutes into act 1 of Mignon, causing many victims among the audience as well as musicians and artists. The Opéra-Comique reopened in October, using the building of the defunct Théâtre-Lyrique on the Place du Châtelet. Apart from Daniel, Cornubert also appeared as Tonio in La fille du régiment; as Olivier (alongside Lucien Fugère and Cécile Merguillier) at the 1888 premiere of Ernest Guiraud’s Madame Turlupin, as well as appearing in its curtain-raiser, Adolphe Deslandres’s Dimanche et lundi; as Vincent in Georges Pfeiffer’s one-act L’enclume in October 1888; and in 1889 as the Byzantine Herald in the opening production of Massenet’s Esclarmonde. He also sang in a few performances of Les diamants de la couronne. His only documented later appearance at the Opéra-Comique was as Werther on 18 January 1894.
Cornubert appeared at the Théâtre des Arts in Rouen for three seasons, 1892–1893, 1897–1898, and 1902–1903. His repertoire included standard roles from Wilhelm Meister in Mignon to Tannhaüser, Rouen being an early bastion of wagnérisme. He also sang in Isidore de Lara’s Moïna, Saint-Saëns’s Ascanio, Leoncavallo’s La bohème (where Marcello is a tenor,) and premiered Lucien Lambert’s Brocéliande. Cornubert was the first Marseilles Werther and the first Dominique in L’attaque du moulin. There, he also premiered Charles Silver’s La belle au bois dormant in 1901 alongside the composer’s wife, Georgette Bréjean-Silver. Other French opera houses where he sang include Dijon, Lille, and Montpellier. During the 1899–1900 season, he sang at the Teatro Tacón in Havana and in Mexico City. His Metropolitan Opera debut took place in February 1900, when he stepped in for Albert Saléza as Vasco da Gama in L’Africaine, partnering Nordica’s Selika. His other Met roles were Raoul (Nordica his Valentine) and Roméo (with Emma Eames). He also appeared in Rossini’s Stabat Mater. According to Kutsch-Riemens, he sang at the Teatro Lirico, Milan, in 1899 and in Cairo in 1903, as well as in Warsaw and Antwerp. His Covent Garden appearances occurred as part of the San Carlo visit in the fall of 1904, singing Don José and Canio, each once, alternating with Caruso, and act 2 of Tosca.
In 1919 he was appointed a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, succeeding Saléza. He died in 1922 after an apoplectic attack. His wife Suzanne was also a singer.
Like Scaramberg, Cornubert’s recordings highlight both his lyrical and heroic roles. “Ô Paradis,” the role of his Met debut, shows the voice to good advantage. The possessor of an attractive timbre, slightly nasal in color, he attacks the opening G-flat with precision, the voice opening to deliver exciting B-flats. His diction is careful and varied—as are his vocal effects. Raoul’s entrance in Les Huguenots is excitingly delivered, with a finely executed gruppetto. “Plus blanche” is nicely ornamented, with a hint of strain on the high C that indicates his upper limit. Would that we had a recorded souvenir of his act 4 duet with Nordica! Sigurd’s aria (beginning at “Hilda! Vierge au pâle sourire”) shows him at his most expressive, with secure high notes. “Winterstürme” is delivered with a whiff of Parisian chic, perhaps alien to a Nordic warrior, but no less enjoyable for that. Roméo’s “Salut, tombeau,” on the other hand, has a heroic “ping,” notwithstanding a tiny “bubble” on “La voici, c’est elle.” The Trovatore cylinder, recorded in 1908, consists of the sole interventions of Manrico in the Miserere scene; it is done tastefully and with a ringing B-flat.
Cornubert began as an Opéra-Comique singer, and it is a pity not more of that side of his repertory is preserved. Also on an Edison Cylinder, Georges Brown’s act 1 rondo from La dame blanche, with a lively band—and alas reduced to the opening ABA section—shows him in splendid form. Deprived of the high Cs, we have to make do with two nice B-flats (both on the second syllable of “gaiement”). A memory of Cornubert’s Werther at the Opéra-Comique, the Ossian Lied is nuanced, poetic, with the note of desperation well conveyed in the second verse. “Je suis seul” from Manon (enlivened at the end by very audible chimes), has a pretty soft attack on “Ah! Fuyez” and is well characterized. Cornubert has also left us an excellent account of Massenet’s song “Ouvre tes yeux bleus” (originally the third song of his 1879 cycle Poëme d’amour).
It is good to have some examples of Cornubert’s lighter repertory. Isidore de Lara’s “Chanson du baiser” includes pretty head tones and diminuendo. Martini’s “Plaisir d’amour” is sung in G and at such a slow tempo that one wishes it had been taken more briskly to make room for the missing B section. As for “C’est mon ami,” an 18th-century song occasionally attributed to Marie-Antoinette (an unlikely attribution), it features an exquisite gruppetto.
Perhaps the least known of the three tenors featured in this album, Julien Leprestre (1864–1909) was born in Paris and was trained at the Conservatoire between 1887 and 1890. His teacher was the baritone Romain Bussine (1830–1899), best-known as the co-founder (with Saint-Saëns, in 1872) and first president of the Société nationale de musique. Having made his début in 1890 as Faust at the Théâtre des Arts in Rouen, Leprestre was hired at the Théâtre de la Monnaie. While at Brussels, he took part in the world premiere of Jan Blockx’s Maître Martin in November 1892. The young tenor was also featured in the local premieres of Werther in January 1893 (a few days after it opened at the Opéra-Comique) and Alfred Bruneau’s L’attaque du moulin the following year. His success in Werther must have been brought to Massenet’s attention, since in September 1894, Leprestre made his Opéra-Comique debut as Des Grieux at an important revival of Manon which marked the role debut of Georgette Bréjean-Gravière (not yet Silver), historically the third major exponent of the role, and for whom Massenet subsequently wrote the Fabliau as an alternative to the Gavotte. Leprestre’s own debut was by no means eclipsed by hers: the Annales du théâtre et de la musique commented on the pleasant timbre of the “charming tenor,” adding that “the exquisite use he made of his mezza voce reminded us of the unforgettable creator of the part, poor Talazac.” (Jean-Alexandre Talazac, who had premiered the parts of Hoffmann, Gérald, and Des Grieux, had just died on 26 December 1896.) Leprestre sang at the Opéra-Comique for four seasons and during that time was the company’s third most regular tenor, after his coeval Edmond Clément and along with Adolphe Maréchal, who joined its roster in 1895. Along with Des Grieux, which he sang most often with Bréjean-Gravière (yet also appearing with Gabrielle Lejeune and with Cécile Simonnet in 1897–1898), Leprestre’s most regular roles were Whilhelm Meister in Mignon, Vincent in Mireille, Paul in Victor Massé’s Paul et Virginie, and Gérald in Lakmé, in which he partnered Marie Van Zandt, the work’s creator, for one performance in May 1897, one of her last appearances in the role. He sang Rodolphe (i.e. Alfredo) to the Violetta of Frances Saville and Nadir to Bréjean-Gravière’s Leila in Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles. Though he was not the Opéra-Comique’s original Araquil when Massenet’s La Navarraise was unveiled in Paris in 1895—the role, premiered in London by Alvarez, was first done in Paris by Henri Jérôme—Leprestre reprised it in December of that year, with Zina de Nuovina as Anita. His first Opéra-Comique premiere was Edmond Missa’s “épisode lyrique” Ninon de Lenclos, which did not last more than a few performances in 1895. Having rehearsed the part of Georges in Benjamin Godard’s La vivandière—the great success of that season—he did not take over the role from Clément until 1897, with Marie Delna still in the cast. In May 1896, he sang the title role in Messager’s Le chevalier d’Harmental, based on Alexandre Dumas’s novel, where his performance was described as “sympathetic” by the Annales. The withdrawal of the work after six performances was a bitter disappointment for the composer. Other parts Leprestre sang at the Opéra-Comique were Mergy in Herold’s Le Pré-aux-clercs and Lorédan in Auber’s Haydée. Roles he rehearsed, but never sang (in Paris at least), were George Brown in La dame blanche, Fra Diavolo, and Don Ottavio. A couple of Don Josés in 1895 may have been too heavy for him then, resulting in his having to take time off to recover. Yet he sang the role again in 1898, evidently with success, opposite Nuovina.
Massenet personally coached Leprestre in Werther, which he sang a number of times in the summer and early fall of 1897, with Delna as Charlotte. By then Massenet had chosen Leprestre to partner Emma Calvé in the world premiere of Sapho, which was unveiled on 27 November 1897 in the presence of Alphonse Daudet, on whose 1884 novel the opera was based, and who died a few days following the Massenet premiere. Though other singers, Adolphe Maréchal among them, were rehearsed in the part of Jean Gaussin, Leprestre sang the 42 performances of the initial run save one, the eleventh, on 29 December 1897 (the day Léon Carvalho died), for which he was replaced by Léon David. Emma Calvé withdrew after the 36th performance and the final six in May and June 1898 were sung by Georgette Leblanc. The length of this run belies the suggestion, occasionally made in recent times, that Leprestre was an inadequate exponent of the role. Massenet mentions him briefly in his memoirs, where he makes the point that he was exceptionally happy with the artistic conditions under which the rehearsals took place. In Massenet speak, that means he had less pleasant recollections of other rehearsal periods, Werther for one. While characterizing Gaussin as a “neglected” and “conventional” part, the Annales had no reservation about Leprestre’s characterization, which they praised. Yet the 1897-1898 season, which marked the apex of Leprestre’s career, was also his last at the Opéra-Comique, and the reasons why he left cannot be accounted for. His departure coincides with the arrival of Léon Beyle, a fine singer and a fine actor, who succeeded him in many of his roles, while Clément and Maréchal continued their brilliant careers. For the next four seasons Leprestre sang in the French provinces. Kutsch and Riemens mention, without any further details, that he expanded his repertory to Marcel in Leoncavallo’s La bohème, Zéphoris in Adam’s Si j’étais roi, and Lyonel in Martha. We encounter him in Paris again in October 1903 when he premiered the role of Torrès in Lucien Lambert’s “drame musical” La flamenca, set in Havana, at the Théâtre-Lyrique de la Gaîté in the first season organized by Émile and Vincent Isola. While welcoming back this “likeable tenor,” the Annales deplored “exaggerations” he had brought back from the provinces. We have found no mention of further Parisian appearances, before or after the handful of recordings he made in 1905. Four years later, on 28 July 1909, Leprestre died of an unspecified disease at the comparatively young age of 47. The funeral announcement contained in his personal file at the Opéra indicates that he lived at La Varenne Saint-Hilaire in the Marne Valley near Paris, that he was survived by his wife and two children, his mother, three brothers, and two sisters, and that he was buried at the cemetery in the northeastern suburb of Les Lilas.
When Leprestre recorded his 11 sides for Odéon in 1905, his operatic career was largely behind him, by then confined to the provinces. Sadly, Jean Gaussin’s aria in Massenet’s Sapho, the role his name is most closely linked with, was not among his recordings. They do, however, convey a good impression of this fine singer, then only 41. He can be heard to particular advantage in the otherwise unknown Marietti Strophes: the resonant, well projected voice, free at the top, is characterized by its clear, attractive, slightly nasal timbre, while the interpretation, sober but by no means inexpressive or charmless, belies Stoullig’s suggestion that the provinces had spoiled Leprestre’s taste. The same qualities are in evidence in Lyonel’s romance from Martha, a work he probably sang on stage, given its popularity in France at the time. Rodolfo’s aria from La bohème begins at “Chi son?”—“Voilà!” in the French version, though Leprestre announces it as “Qui suis-je?” The added grace notes may strike us as unusual—especially in what was, at the time, contemporary music—but that kind of ornamentation was not just permissible but indeed expected from an Opéra-Comique singer. Another classic French Opéra-Comique tradition is the effective use of voix mixte and “covering” at the top. This feature is also in evidence in Sylvain’s romance from Les dragons de Villars. The boisterous, seldom-recorded aria from François Bazin’s Le voyage en Chine is a precious souvenir of one of the best Second Empire opéras-comiques, to a hilarious libretto by Labiche set in Cherbourg. Leprestre makes a small textual slip in the opening verse, singing “Partout des pagodes / D’étonnantes modes” instead of “Partout des clochettes / Un bruit de sonnettes” (an obvious reference to Auber’s “Chinese opera” Le cheval de bronze); that he was not singing from a score suggests that Henri de Kernoisan was another role he sang on stage. He manages the humorous mood swings deftly and chooses the more difficult option at “boulevards,” leaping from middle G to a high B-natural. As for the Manon aria (missing the middle section as is often the case in early recordings) it is a classic account, vibrant yet free from exaggeration, with a subtle, unaffected use of portamento, and a useful testimony of an important revival of the work, for which Leprestre probably benefited from the composer’s advice.
Vincent Giroud, © 2008
Early French Tenors: Émile Scaramberg, Pierre Cornubert, and Julien Leprestre
This release is the first of three double CD sets highlighting early French Tenors. Some of the artists included in these compilations will be well-known names to collectors, and others more obscure. Yet, all deserve a place in history. Émile Scaramberg, Pierre Cornubert, and Julien Leprestre will be featured in this first volume. Émile Scaramberg (1863–1938) an important singer, first at the Opéra-Comique and later at the Opéra, sang the French repertoire and Wagnerian roles with equal expertise and elegance. His complete recordings, made for Fonotipia between 1905–1906, are presented in this volume. Pierre Cornubert (1863–1922) and Julien Leprestre (1864–1909) are both less-well known today than Scaramberg, perhaps because of the scarcity of their records. Cornubert debuted at the Opéra-Comique in 1887 but sang primarily in houses such as Rouen, Marseilles, and Montpellier. He recorded eight sides for Fonotipia, five sides for Disque Ultima, and two Edison cylinders, all of which will be included here. Juliene Leprestre made his debut at Rouen in 1890 and subsequently appeared at La Monnaie. At the Opéra-Comique, he participated in several premiers and created the role of Jean Gaussin in Massenet’s Sapho. He recorded a few extremely rare discs for French Odeon in 1905–1907, a selection of which will be included in this volume.