Another name, Mady Mesplé, the month of May 2020 will have been cruel for lovers of lyric art, and more particularly French song, since two great performers have just disappeared a few days apart. After Gabriel Bacquier (read our article) on May 13, Mady Mesplé passed away at the age of 89 on May 30 in Toulouse, her hometown.
It is not only the proximity of the dates that makes us reunite spontaneously, nor even their respective careers that led them to perform together on stage as on record. It is because they have both embodied the excellence of French song and its international influence that they are entitled to an exemplary place in the pantheon of lyric performers in our country. The diversity of the repertoires approached by each of them proves the perfect mastery of their art. They never locked themselves in a style or a genre.
It was however not easy for a colorature soprano, too often assigned to pyrotechnic roles, not to allow herself to be trapped in this repertoire, especially since the French opera (Lakmé, Ophélie, Olympia), like the Italian (Gilda, Lucia, Amina) or German (The Queen of the Night, Constance, Zerbinette), reserve very famous and perilous pages for lovers of beautiful voices. Mady Mesplé has sung all of these roles, but she has never been trapped in them.
While she interpreted fluently and successfully that of Lakmé who had made her known at the Opéra de Liège, she had to take on a particularly delicate performance, for herself and for the public: on the occasion of the 1,500 representation from the work of Léo Delibes, the Opéra-Comique had planned a prestige recovery on December 29, 1960, the 42nd anniversary of Mado Robin who had fully identified with this role. The singer, much loved by the public, suffered from cancer but hoped to be able to assume this commitment. However, she succumbed on the previous December 10. The first was kept in tribute to the disappeared, and Lakmé was brilliantly embodied by a Mady Mesplé who won, that evening, the definitive recognition of the French public. In a less dramatic register, in 1962, she replaced Joan Sutherland at short notice in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Edinburgh International Festival. This time it was the international consecration.
This success was the fruit of hard work which had started, at the age of 4, with music theory lessons at home, in Toulouse where she was born on May 7, 1931, in a music-loving family who regularly attended the Capitol theater . The same year, she attended her first lyric show, Gounod’s Faust, which enchanted her. Entering piano class at her town’s conservatory at the age of 7, she took classes there in particular with Marie-Madeleine Lioux, a renowned pianist, who became André Malraux’s second wife.
But during adolescence, due to a lack of financial means, it was impossible for the young Magdeleine Mesplé, known as Mado, to continue her training at the Paris Conservatory. She said she had experienced this renunciation as a “collapse“. Her piano practice, however, allowed her to earn a very young living as an accompanist in dance halls and at the Conservatory. It is there that a music inspector noticed her voice and her dispositions for singing, affirming that she is a future Lakmé: « The path was clear. I don’t seem to have chosen. I had a fair voice, and that’s a gift. What can we do against it or for that? » she said to explain that she then turned to singing studies. However, she will have, from her first vocation for the piano, curiosity for all music and an extraordinary ease of deciphering. Hence her astonishment that at present time the studies of music theory have increased to an hour and a quarter per day, when one devoted six hours to her time.
Working on singing, at the Toulouse Conservatory, in the class of Juliette Izar-Lasson, originally from Liège and wife of the director of the Capitole theater, she benefited from the support of the couple to make her debut on stage, in 1953, at the Liège Opera. This is where Mado became Mady, because her diminutive was already worn by the famous Mado Robin.
She immediately sang the title role of Lakmé, The Barber of Seville in which Rosine – in the French version – was then held by light colored sopranos. Gilda (Rigoletto), the Queen of the Night (The Magic Flute), Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor) will follow.
The success she met opened two years later the doors of the Lyon Opera for Olympia (Les Contes d’Hoffmann d’Offenbach). Soon the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels called upon her. In 1957, the Opéra-Comique de Paris engaged her in the same repertoire. She also participated in the Opera Garnier program.
From this period she kept the memory of the perfect camaraderie which reigned with her colleagues who were named Alain Vanzo, Xavier Depraz, Gérard Serkoyan, Jeanne Berbié. She will sing in this decade in North Africa (in particular, she will be Gilda opposite the Rigoletto by Robert Massard in Oran).
The Aix-en-Provence Festival called upon her in 1956 for Belle in Zémire and Azor by Grétry and in 1966 for Zerbinetta, alongside Ariane by Régine Crespin (Ariane à Naxos by Richard Strauss). It was her husband, Lou Bruder, a rigorous Germanist, who taught the young Toulousaine, at length and with many difficulties, how to correctly articulate the text sung in German. While it only took Mesplé three days to learn the role of Lucia di Lammermoor in Italian.
An accomplished musician, she never rested on her natural vocal skills. She never stopped working and reworking her roles, even the most familiar, with Janine Reiss – who died on June 1st at 99. This song professor, sought after by older children, from Callas to Pavarotti, preferred to call herself a “role teacher” because she did not separate vocal technique from dramatic expression. Janine Reiss could only get along with the singer, whom she became friends with.
Indeed, Mady Mesplé sought the best vocal expression to translate the truth of the character, without betraying the music. She never just made sounds, even the most beautiful ones possible: she never lost sight of the dramatic dimension of an opera score.
She took all of her roles very seriously, and thought about how to enhance the personality of characters often reduced to a few clichés. Far from these, she made a very subtle analysis of the role of Lakmé, generally perceived as conventional, to show her evolution which can only lead to a tragic outcome. She pushed the concern for truth until drawing her own costumes and caused a scandal by putting on, in the opera of Léo Delibes, a Hindu costume which largely discovered her navel. She also sang Philine (Mignon) and Ophélie (Hamlet) by Ambroise Thomas. In Italian, she performed Norina (Don Pasquale by Donizetti) and Amina (La somnambula by Bellini).
From 1972, Mady Mesplé flew to other horizons. She performed in the main European opera houses in the West, as in the East. It goes from Moscow to Odessa, Talin, Novosibirsk, pushing up to Japan. Central Europe also welcomes her, as does the New World: the United States (Miami, Chicago, Seattle, Washington and Los Angeles). Brazil, Argentina where the particularly warm public of the Colón of Buenos Aires made her a triumph.
She is one of the rare survivors of the former troop of the Paris Opera to have been invited to sing after the arrival of Rolf Liebermann, the so new director, at the head of this establishment, to embody, in 1975, the Doll in Les Contes d’Hoffmann by ‘Offenbach, directed by Patrice Chéreau.
But, far from confining herself to a repertoire of the past, the soprano sang operas of her time, such as the role of Constance in The Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc. She participated in the creation of Princesse Pauline by Henri Tomasi (1962) and Le Dernier Sauvage by Gian Carlo Menotti (1963). Outside the opera, she worked with the Toulousain, Charles Chaynes, who dedicated his Quatre poèmes de Sappho to her.
Pierre Boulez, whom she appreciated as a conductor, invited her to come and sing in London L’Echelle de Jacob (Die Jacobsleiter) by Schoenberg and L’Enfant et les Sortilèges by Ravel. In 1965, Mesplé created, in French, the Elegy for young lovers (Elegie für junge Liebende) by Hans Werner Henze. The following year, Betsy Jolas wrote for her a Quartet II for soprano and string trio. Mesplé also performed the works of Patrice Mestrall, Yves Prin. She was also interested in melody and, in 1971, she inaugurated the series of recitals that the Paris Opera devoted to this discipline.
Similarly, she did not hesitate to embark on a lighter repertoire like the operetta (which the Germans, unlike the French, did more readily), while pointing out that she sang more contemporary music than operettas. She alternated, in 1960, in the opera-comedy Les Noces de Jeannette by Victor Massé, (mounted in the sets of the famous designer Raymond Peynet), with Liliane Berton alongside Michel Dens.
Mady Mesplé participated with EMI in the recording of La Vie Parisienne d’Offenbach, conducted by Michel Plasson at the head of the Capitole Orchestra of Toulouse. From the same composer, she recorded several operettas in one act conducted by Manuel Rosenthal. You can find her with the same publisher in Véronique by André Messager; Fra Diavolo and Manon Lescaut by Auber, Les Saltimbanques by Louis Ganne, Richard Coeur de Lion and L’ Amant jaloux by Grétry, Ciboulette by Reynaldo Hahn which she also recorded 28 melodies, La Fille de Madame Madame Angot by Lecocq, Véronique by Messager, Les Cloches de Corneville by Planquette and Les Mousquetaires au couvent by Varney.
Same eclecticism in the choice of directors, whether modern like Patrice Chéreau or heirs of tradition like Franco Zeffirelli. For her, the main thing “is the deep and original lighting focused on the character of the characters, beyond stereotypes. “She also recognizes that all the conductors she has worked with – Michel Plasson, Georges Prêtre, Pierre Boulez – have helped her” to progress in the knowledge and love of music. “
To the roles already mentioned, Blondchen, then Konstanze from Die Entführung aus dem Serail, the soprano would have liked to be able to add Elvira from The Puritains by Bellini, of which she only sang in concert the scene of madness. She regretted not having had the opportunity to play Alban Berg’s Lulu which she found extraordinary. More classically, she will be found in supporting roles, still at EMI, including those of Sophie (Werther by Massenet) and Jemmy (Guillaume Tell by Rossini).
But this professional success hides intimate dramas which she will reveal in a book published by Michel Lafon editor, on the eve of her 80th birthday, in 2010, La Voix du corps: Vivre avec la maladie de Parkinson ( Living with the Parkinson disease). This is not a simple biography, but a testimony intended to make known and support research on this disease from which she suffered.
However, her greatest pain was before the discovery of her illness. Her life turned upside down on her 59th birthday, March 7, 1990, when she learned that her only 32-year-old daughter, who was expecting her third child, had succumbed to a ruptured aneurysm. Long annihilated, she returned to Belgium for a farewell concert. She discovers that the song soothes her suffering and she will devote herself to the recital to continue living. But immeasurable fatigue overwhelms her, which she ends up being unable to overcome.
It was only in 1996 that she was discovered to be suffering from Parkinson’s disease which she had never heard of. She continues to sing as long as she stands: “Singing in front of the audience helped me forget that I was sick because of my enthusiasm. But the progress of evil condemns her to give up and she says goodbye to the stage in 2001, at 70 years old.
She then devoted herself to teaching, participated as a juror in lyrical contests. But that too had to give up: “Now, I don’t even want to sing for myself. My voice fell silent. Fortunately, I still find the courage to go and listen to my female songwriting friends. This is the best way to conserve my energy. To continue living, ”she admitted. She had become a regular spectator at the Capitol as long as she had the strength to move. In Toulouse, she had found her great friend, her Malika on record as on stage, the mezzo-soprano Jane Berbié to whom she said she was indebted for having been able to strengthen a serious that she did not have at the start.
If we try to understand what Mady Mesplé’s contribution to lyrical art was in the 1950s, there is her exceptional voice – going as far as the counter-fa -, described by her admirers as crystal clear, always very even in high-pitched areas. But others before her could dispute her ease, the closest chronologically to which was Mado Robin.
In fact, she was the very image of the singer that she changed: she had the ideal beauty and silhouette that corresponded to the heroines that she embodied, such as the youthfulness of the voice, to which was added the accuracy of her scenic play. No more singer on the stage where the sound is best. Admittedly, she was not alone (think of Gabriel Bacquier mentioned above) but it was still rare that all these qualities were found at this level in the same artist. This was accompanied by an empathy for her comrades and for the public that the latter perceived and to which she was sensitive. Her natural simplicity allowed her to appear in television broadcasts “mainstream” such as those hosted by Jacques Martin or Pascal Sevran (as for Mado Robin, hosted by Jean Nohain before), where she could sing opera, operetta like songs. Mady Mesplé said: “As long as the music is good, whatever its label. For me, good music is one whose melody touches you. Without forgetting an essential touch of refinement and elegance. ” She has also participated in a few TV films by Jean-Christophe Averty, Didier Decoin or in musical films.
Some events demonstrated national recognition: the National Merit and the Legion of Honor decorations awarded by the President of the Republic; the use of her recording of the Air des Clochettes which accompanied, in 2009, the festivities of the 120th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower. Her name was given, after that of Mado Robin and before those of Natalie Dessay and Sabine Devieilhe, the four most famous French sopranos, having interpreted the role of Lakmé, to an asteroid.
It is also this ability to capture the attention of a large audience, which has become rare today – Roberto Alagna still has this talent – without sacrificing the dignity of his art, which makes one regret that we would not like to see it totally disappear in favor of the debility with which the media, like the Regietheater on opera stages, water us today.
To discover Mady Mesplé’s repertoire, you can listen to the EMI Classics box set, published in 2011 for the 80th anniversary of the soprano, made up of extracts from her integrals. Most of them are available, with the exception of the French version of Lucie de Lammermoor, edited by Donizetti himself, recorded with Alain Vanzo, at Barclay.