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Principals of the Opéra-Comique, Paris, c.1928


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The distinguished French tenor Georges Thill (pictured right in 1929), whom many consider to be the greatest French singer of the 20th century, was born in 1897; he studied at the Paris Conservatoire and also with legendary tenor Fernando De Lucia in Naples. From de Lucia he acquired the skill to sing with bel canto technique as well as the idiomatic French style. Upon returning to Paris, he sang at the Opéra-Comique, where he made his first appearance as Nicias in Thaïs in February 1924, and continued to sing there regularly until 1940. He appeared at London’s Covent Garden in 1928 and 1937, and made his Metropolitan debut in New York as Romeo in March 1931, remaining on the company’s roster until 1932. His farewell appearance was as Canio at the Opéra-Comique in 1953. Thill’s outstanding roles, included Carmen’s Don José, Romeo, Julien in Louise, Aeneas, and Samson. He was also a fine singer of Italian and German roles - and his repertoire was immense, amounting to over 50 leading operatic roles. He also appeared in films, including the screen version of Charpentier’s Louise with Grace Moore.

Thill’s discography, with over 150 titles and several complete operas, is also enormous, reflecting not only the diversity of his art but his genius. His singing displayed not only a voice of rare beauty and evenness, but also wonderful diction, demonstrated well in his divine art Carmen recording, despite the early and relatively primitive recording techniques. In the words of Richard Turp, “Georges Thill simply had class . . .” He died in Paris on 17 October, 1984, leaving one of the greatest legacies of musical performance of modern times.

The bass-baritone Louis Guénot was born in 1891 and was a leading light of the Opéra-Comique from 1922 until after the Second World War, equally adept in leading roles such as Escamillo, or Zurga in The Pearl Fishers and in character roles – he even sang Osmin in Die Entführung. He took part in Élie Cohen’s recordings of Carmen and Werther and also made some solo discs. He died in 1968.

Mezzo Raymonde Visconti (pictured right as Thaïs) was born in 1890 in Paris. In 1920, she sang in Tosca with tenor Jean Marrey, and starred as Thaïs; though relatively successful at the Opéra-Comique she never reached the top flight of international stardom. The same can be said of her colleagues, the sopranos Andrée Vavon and Andrée Bernadet , both of whom took part (alongside Guénot) in the company’s 1928/9 recordings, of Bizet's Carmen as Frasquita and Mercedes), and Massanet’s Manon, when Vavon played Pousette and Bernadet took the role of Rosette. Vavon at least continued on the stage for many years, appearing in several operas and musicals.

Marthe Nespoulous, was born in 1894 in Paris of a Greek family. Originally planning to work in education, she was accepted by the Opéra in 1923 and made her debut in a small role in Herodiade, but her first leading role was as Thaïs in 1926 when she also played Nedda in Pagliacci. Though ostensibly contracted to the Opéra, she often (without consent) joined other opera companies including those in Barcelona, Monte Carlo and Naples, as well as several French provincial companies; this eventually led to a showdown with the Opera management and her retirement from singing; thereafter she returned to teaching, and from 1947 she was a professor at the Conservatoire in Bordeaux, where she lived until her death in 1962. She left a reasonable (for the day) recorded legacy of both operatic arias and songs by composers such as Duparc, Gailhard, Hahn and Bernheim – all made for Columbia between 1927 and 1933.

Élie Cohen made his Opéra-Comique début with Lakmé on 7th August 1922 and in the years between the wars was a valued conductor at the house, conducting much ballet, including Swan Lake, as well as opera. He made a number of exquisite recordings, including some of the Songs of the Auvergne with Madeleine Grey, excerpts from Mignon, and admired sets of Carmen and Werther. Little is known of his life outside the theatre.
CD details:

DDH 27809 Bizet: Carmen