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by Luca

Several tenors made it into the opera history books because of their importance and contribution to the art. In the first half of the nineteenth century and Bel Canto era, most of them were either Italian of French. The styles, although initially very different, were being combined in the search for the more exciting and powerful sound being developed. Many operas by Rossini and Donizetti were written for French tenors, and others were made successful in France with the roles being adapted to French tenors.
One of the great French tenors of the time was ADOLPHE NOURRIT (1802-1839), known for his musicianship and the great care he took with delivering his lines, matching text and music in the most expressive way possible. Many of the tenor roles in Rossini’s works were adapted to the voice of Nourrit, who worked under the composer on combining French and Italian singing traditions. Nourrit also created the roles of Count Ory and Arnaldo in Guillaume Tell. Having studied as a French haute-contre, Nourrit had no difficulty with the high tessitura of those roles, and also created the title role in Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable and Raoul in Les Huguenots. Nourrit’s fame faded as new singers appeared with the new singing style. Around 1836 he was replaced in Opéra de Paris by GILBERT-LOUIS DUPREZ (1806-1896), a Parisian tenor who had just returned from a huge and successful career in Italy. Having studied in Italy and learned the new and powerful Italian style, Duprez caused a sensation in 1837 by singing a high C in full chest voice in a performance of Guillaume Tell. The success was not because of the quality of the note (which some, including Rossini himself, considered highly disagreeable) but simply by showing that it could be sung in this way. Other singers strove to emulate him, and composers began to demand this bigger sound in the highest registers. Nourrit decided to try his luck in Italy as well and worked with Donizetti in several of his works. Eventually, Nourrit’s mental health declined and after much effort to engage in the new style, the tenor jumped to his death from a window of the Hotel Barbaia in Naples.
Meanwhile in France, Duprez kept enjoying the success of the new singing style. His chest high C affected the taste of the public, who would only listen to Guillaume Tell when Duprez was singing. Rossini was not a fan of this new “screamy” style, and compared the high notes to “the squawk of a capon with its throat cut”. But the style was too exciting to be stopped and drove the audiences to the theatres – it was there to stay. Duprez was praised in France as the first Romantic tenor.
The new style was still being tested, and many of the singers had problems with it, as we seen in previous chapters. Duprez too, suffered the consequences. Because the great number of performances he was engaged to and probably due some forcing of his singing, his career was short and he lost his voice. He spent the rest of his time acting as a teacher and promoting the new style of singing, which he called Voix sombrée (darkened voice). He created many important roles in his time, including the main tenor roles in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (Edgardo, 1835); La favorite (Fernand, 1840) and Dom Sébastien (title role, 1843); as well as Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini (title role, 1838) and Verdi’s Jérusalem (Gaston, 1847).
Many other tenors enjoyed fame and success in the nineteenth century opera world. MANUEL GARCÍA (1775-1832), who created the role of Count Almaviva in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, had also an important role as the teacher of Nourrit and Manuel Garcia jr. (1805-1906), his son. Garcia II later became one of the first singers to write about the technical aspects of singing and his vast study of vocal pedagogy and anatomy. He had a scientific approach to singing and was one of the first to observe a lower larynx position known as voix sombrée.
As the tenor voice grew darker and louder, the second half of the nineteenth century saw more changes in opera and singing. Many tenors developed their voices after starting their careers as baritones. Others, switched from tenor to baritone later in life. The Verismo style demanded heavy voices and great expressive singing, and the tenor kept dominating the stages, arguably since then until today.



Rockwell Blake – “Ah, dov’è, dov’è il cimento?” – Idreno Aria – “Semiramide” (𝟣823).
Arabesque Recordings ‎”Encore Rossini” – ℗ 1989
Recorded at: Abbey Road Studios, London, England, June 2, 5 & 7 1989.
London Symphony Orchestra
Conductor – M.° Maximiano Valdes.