Early recordings seem to reveal that a stylistic change in operatic singing was occurring around the turn of the 20th century. Certain singers with a reputation for representing an older style, such as Mattia Battistini and Fernando De Lucia, have been compared with others such as Titta Ruffo and Enrico Caruso to differentiate the "old" from the "new." But such absolute distinctions do not exist. As the 19th century progressed into the 20th, a more declamatory, less ornamented style of singing was required by the great Italian, French and German composers--a different set of demands was imposed on younger singers growing up with Wagner and verismo. These young singers often did sing differently than their precursors--but many of them did not entirely abandon the old style, and boundaries were not always clear. Ruffo and Caruso, while more "explosive," did have characteristics in common with the older generation, and of course, Battistini and De Lucia excelled in several verismo roles. It is simplistic to define certain singers of the period as "modern," with the various positive or negative connotations which go along with that term. Several historic singers who left a recorded legacy defy categorization: one such is the great French baritone, Maurice Renaud.
Renaud inherited the mantle of French baritones such as Jean Lassalle and Victor Maurel as a singing actor who achieved international renown. All contemporary reviews of Renaud speak of him as a great actor, immersing himself so deeply into each role so as to become virtually unrecognizable. As such, and with a fluid elegance and charm that speaks of "old-world" romanticism, Renaud could easily be placed as an essentially nineteenth-century singer. Yet, there are several reasons to question this conclusion. His range as a singer was extensive, including operas by Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Donizetti, and Rossini, as well as the more common works by Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Gounod, Thomas, Massenet, and Saint-Saëns encountered on stages in France and Belgium. His influence extended well into our century. Renaud's interpretations of French music must have served as a model for younger singers. One can hear stylistic echoes in many performances by later French baritones.
The recordings that exist of Lassalle and Maurel are fascinating. Lassalle's big, velvety voice is modulated expressively and envelops the listener with warmth. Maurel, at this point in his career, was more calculating, and with very limited means, still manages to produce magical effects. These recordings were made when both singers were in their mid-fifties and their careers were behind them. Conversely, Maurice Renaud was around forty years old when he first recorded, in 1901, and could be described as in his prime. His career in the United States had yet to begin. He therefore does represent that great French tradition, but was a highly individualistic artist as well, who transformed familiar arias and songs so that they could be heard anew.
Maurice Arnold Renaud was born on 24 July in Bordeaux. The year of his birth varies in different sources, ranging from 1860-1862. He studied for a year at the Paris Conservatoire, and then proceeded to the Brussels Conservatoire where he worked with Joseph Cornelis and Henri Warnots. His early career was made in Brussels. Renaud made his debut at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in 1883 and remained with that company, singing leading baritone roles until 1890. He participated in the premiere of Ernest Reyer's Sigurd in 1884, and in his Salammbô in 1890. Rose Caron was his co-star in both performances. In October of 1890 he joined the Opéra Comique in Paris, making his debut in Lalo's Le Roi d'Ys. The following year he became a member of the Paris Opéra, making his debut as Nelusko in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. He remained a leading baritone at the Opéra until 1902, performing Wagner's Telramund, Beckmesser, and Wolfram; Verdi's Rigoletto, Iago and Amonasro; and Mozart's Don Giovanni, as well as numerous roles in both familiar and unfamiliar French operas. He continued to perform as a guest artist at the Opéra until 1914.
Renaud first traveled to the United States in 1893, appearing initially with the French Opera in New Orleans and on a tour that included Boston and Chicago. Renaud's debut in London occurred during the Diamond Jubilee Gala at Covent Garden in June 1897. He performed in the Second Act of Tannhäuser with Emma Eames and Ernest Van Dyck; and in the Fourth Act of Les Huguenots with Albert Alvarez and Pol Plançon. Further performances at Covent Garden in 1897 included Don Giovanni with Ada Adini, Zelie de Lussan, and Marcel Journet. Renaud performed regularly in London until 1904 and afterwards continued to make guest appearances. The casts for these performances were often extraordinary: Carmen with Emma Calvé, Emma Eames, and Albert Saléza; Don Giovanni with Lilli Lehmann, Lillian Nordica or Emmy Destinn, Suzanne Adams, Zelie de Lussan, and Edouard de Reszke; Manon with Mary Garden; Rigoletto with Nellie Melba or Selma Kurz, Enrico Caruso, and Marcel Journet.
Renaud toured extensively, making guest appearances in St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Monte Carlo, where he sang in the premieres of Massenet's Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame (1902) and Chérubin (1905). In 1902 he sang Méphistophélès in Raoul Gunsbourg's operatic version of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, both in Monte Carlo and at La Scala with Arturo Toscanini conducting. Henry Krehbiel of the New York Tribune wrote of a later performance of this role at the Hammerstein Opera House "... with due respects to Plançon, Méphistophélès never had an adequate performance here until last night."
Maurice Grau, Manager of the Metropolitan Opera House, had signed a contract with Renaud, but various international conflicts prevented the baritone from making his debut at New York's first opera house before the turn of the century. When Heinrich Conried succeeded Grau, he voided Renaud's contract. Renaud sued and received a substantial settlement. In 1906 Oscar Hammerstein signed Renaud for the new Manhattan Opera House, supposedly at the urging of Nellie Melba, but his greatest triumphs with the Mannhattan company were associated with Mary Garden. Renaud's debut there was in December 1906 in Rigoletto with Melba and Alessandro Bonci as his co-stars. In November 1907 Mary Garden made her debut at the Manhattan in Massenet's Thaïs with Renaud as Athanael. W. J. Henderson, the dean of New York critics, wrote that "His Athanael has never been rivaled. No one else succeeded in creating the same impression of intensity." Renaud's great roles at the Manhattan Opera included Don Giovanni, Scarpia, Germont, Hérode in Hérodiade, and the three villains in Tales of Hoffmann. Garden, herself, described Renaud as "one of the greatest artists in the world."
While all the New York critics praised Renaud, Henry T. Finck idolized him. He had seen them all, beginning his career as a music critic in 1876, writing about Wagner's first Bayreuth Festival. He was the music critic of the New York Evening Post for more than forty years, retiring in 1924. After almost fifty years of witnessing the greatest operatic performances of that golden age, Finck described Maurice Renaud as "one of the greatest, if not the greatest, opera singer." After Hammerstein was bought out in 1910, Renaud finally joined the Met, making his debut as Rigoletto on 25 November with Nellie Melba, Florencio Constantino, and Adamo Didur. He sang with the company for two seasons, making his final appearance in March 1912 as Valentin in Faust.
Maurice Renaud occasionally performed with the Boston and Chicago-Philadelphia companies during his final years. On 21 November 1910, he appeared as Scarpia with the fiery Carmen Melis, prompting the local Boston critic H. T. Parker to write, "Oh, this was as vivid and racking a performance of Tosca since it first came to the stage!" In his final London performances in 1911 at Hammerstein's London Opera House he sang in Hérodiade, Rigoletto, Tales of Hoffmann and Quo Vadis.
During World War I, Renaud gave concerts for the allied troops and was wounded at the front when he and four others in a trench took a hit from a projectile - his wounds left him an invalid. After the War he was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government. In April 1919, appearing at the Paris Opéra in a gala performance of Offenbach's Monsieur Choufleuri Restera Chez Lui, Renaud finally retired from the stage. Like numerous other opera singers Renaud was attracted by the new media and appeared in a silent film in 1920.
Maurice Renaud made fifty-two discs for the Gramophone and Pathé companies from 1901 to 1908, but many of these were duplicates. He recorded only sixteen arias and five songs. With one exception, everything is sung in French. There are no duets or ensembles. Many of his most famous roles are not represented. Renaud's records are what you would expect from a great French baritone at the turn of the century. The singing is smooth, the words are articulated clearly without breaking the phrase, and a sense of elegance is intrinsically part of the whole. What is surprising is how idiosyncratic a singer Renaud was.
His voice was a "central baritone," not as heavy as Lassalle's or as light as Armand Crabbé's. It was often described as powerful and one can hear that it was resonant and evenly produced. Renaud's timbre does not change throughout his range. While he sings musically, observing dynamics, there is not an excessive use of messa di voce (artful swelling and diminishing of notes) or sfumatura (artful fading away of notes) as in certain other singers of this period. But this is not to say that Renaud is a particularly direct singer. He enjoys slowing down the tempo to allow for an expressive rubato. This tendency is heard over and over again in these recordings.
We can hear numerous singers taking slower tempos than we hear today on early recordings. Questions arise about the composer's intentions and Renaud certainly knew several of the great French composers. The question should be... what has the singer achieved by taking a slow tempo? The most controversial Renaud recording is probably Don Giovanni's "Serenade." He sings both verses in French and then repeats the second verse in Italian. Renaud stretches the vocal line, heightening the romantic atmosphere. He truly makes it a love song, rather than an elegant piece of vocal display. Further, he retains the traditional appogiaturas and expressively ornaments the vocal line. All heresy... but what an extraordinary performance! Renaud is seductive and cunning as he swells in and out rhythmically with the music. How could this Don Giovanni be resisted?
In "Vision fugitive" from Massenet's Hérodiade, we hear a similar approach used more idiomatically, no question about appropriate style here. The tempo creates space within which Renaud modulates the vocal line to intensify the mood. After almost a century Renaud's interpretation still remains the definitive performance on records. More surprising is Renaud's Wagner. He recorded two excepts from Tannhäuser and a brilliant scene from The Flying Dutchman. His versatility is demonstrated on these three recordings. The 1902 "Evening Star" is approached gently, with lengthy pianissimos smoothly drawing out Wolfram's dreamy lyricism. This would be expected, but in contrast the Dutchman's declamatory phrases are projected with great passion. Renaud makes expressive use of marcato to stress certain words within the phrase and build to a climax.
Maurice Renaud's imaginative artistry is communicated vividly through these recordings. His eloquence and sense of style is what we would expect from a classic exponent of the French school. Even without costume or makeup, his ability to create a realistic portrayal of a character, with voice alone on these primitive recordings, sets him apart. As Henry Krehbiel once wrote, "where Renaud sits, there is the head of the table."
©Harold Bruder, 1997