Wednesday 17 November 2010

Jean de Reske

Having read in the programme for Saturday's performance of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette that Jean de Reske had sung the role of Romeo, with Melba as Juliette, at Covent Garden in 1889, I became curious because Reske was renowned for his Wagner singing.

Jean de Reszke was a Polish tenor, born in 1850 who became one of the most celebrated tenors of his day. Training initially as a baritone, he re-trained as a tenor and became one of the most notable performers of his day performing in Paris, London and New York. His repertoire covered the heavier roles and he sang significant numbers of Wagnerian roles, but also the French repertoire of his day (Meyerbeer, Gounod and Bizet). He sang his Wagner roles in both Italian and German.

We don't have many recordings of De Reske, there are a few live cylinder recordings of operatic performances, but no studio recordings seem to have survived. It is illuminating an instructive to look at how his repertoire changed over the years, the following is a list of his roles at Covent Garden (his Met roles were almost identical); it should be borne in mind that up to 1892, operas at Covent Garden were usually presented in Italian. I've not heard of Bemberg's Elaine, but the composer seems to have been South American, trained in Paris, De Reszke also sang the role of Lancelot at the work's American premiere at the Met in 1894. Esmeralda is by Arthur Goring Thomas and dates from 1883, it is based on the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame; it was performed at Covent Garden in French.

1888: Vasco da Gama( L'Africaine - Meyerbeer), Raoul( Les Huguenots - Meyerbeer), Faust, Radames (Aida), Riccardo (Ballo in maschera), Lohengrin.
1889: Radames, Raoul( Les Huguenots), Lohengrin, Walter (Die Meistersinger), Romeo Roméo et Juliette - Gounod)
1890: Jean de Leyden (Le Prophète - Meyerbeer), Romeo, Faust, Don Josè (Carmen), Lohengrin, Walther, Phoebus (Esmeralda - Goring Thomas).
1891: Raoul ( Les Huguenots), Jean de Leyden (Le Prophète - Meyerbeer), Faust, Romeo, Don Josè, Otello, Lohengrin, Walter.
1892: Jean de Leyden (Le Prophète), Romeo, Don Jose, Lohengrin, Lancelot (Elaine - Bemberg)
1893: Raul ( Les Huguenots), Faust, Romeo, Lohengrin, Walter.
1894: Faust, Romeo, Werther, Radames, Lohengrin, Walter, Lancelot (Elaine)
1896: Faust, Romeo, Lohengrin, Walter, Tristan
1897: Romeo, Lohengrin, Walter, Tristan, Siegfried (Siegfried)
1898: Lohengrin, Walter, Tristan, Siegfried (Siegfried and Gotterdammerung)
1899: Faust, Romeo, Lohengrin, Walter, Tristan
1900: Romeo, Lohengrin, Walter

As with any helden-tenor, it is noticeable how the non-Wagner roles are reduced as the Wagner roles increase. But quite what defines a helden-tenor seems to have changed. Nowadays we would not really expect such a voice to sing Meyerbeer. But more remarkable is the way that the Gounod roles seem to persist in his repertoire. The idea of a tenor nowadays singing Siegfried, Faust and Romeo. De Reske was a re-trained baritone, which is often a help when it comes to singing Siegfried, but this is not a voice type that we would expect to hear in Faust or Romeo. As an example, think of the mature Domingo and then try to imagine him singing Faust or Romeo!

It was De Reske who suggested that Melba might sing Brunnhilde to his Siegfried in New York. Which she did with notable lack of success. But that she should attempt it at all is remarkable.

All this leaves me wishing that we had more record of De Reske's voice and technique. If fascinates me that he combined roles in ways that are not done nowadays, perhaps indicating that his approach to Wagner was far more bel canto than is done nowadays.

The picture at the head of this post is De Reszke as Romeo. There are many more pictures, plus information about his brother Edouard, here.

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