French contralto, 1882 - 1915
(courtesy of Charles B. Mintzer)
Gerville-Réache was born in Orthez, in the south of France, into a wealthy and politically well
connected family. She spent a part of her childhood in the French West Indies, where her father was stationed as a diplomat, but back in Paris she studied with Rosine Laborde and the legendary
Pauline Viardot-Garcia. We probably have the latter to thank for most of what we hear on Gerville-Réache’s recordings today. Emma Calvé was overwhelmed by the young contralto’s voice,
and arranged for her début at the Opéra-Comique as Gluck’s Orphée in 1899. She was only 17 years old.
She remained on the roster at the Opéra-Comique until 1903, and it was there that she created
the role of Geneviève in Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), but the young Gerville-Réache faced formidable competition from Marie Delna. There, and at the Paris Opéra as well, Delna was well
known for jealously hoarding the larger contralto roles with the ferocity of Cerberus guarding the River Styx. Blanche Deschamps-Jehin was similarly entrenched (and married to the principal
conductor) at Monte Carlo, so Gerville-Réache was obliged to cast her sights outside of France for any measure of personal opportunity or acclaim.
In the early years of the 20th
century, she sang in Brussels and at Covent Garden before her début with the Manhattan Opera Company in New York as La Cieca in La Gioconda (1907), with
one of those "Golden Age" dream casts including Lillian Nordica, Giovanni Zenatello, Mario Ancona, Adamo Didur and Eleanora de Cisneros. At the Manhattan, she was well received in Massenet’s La Navarraise
, not so successful as Carmen and fearsome as Klytemnestra in Elektra, but she created a true sensation in Samson et Dalila.
Her interpretation of this role quickly established the popularity of Saint-Saëns’ opera in
America, and the critic Philip Hale ranked her Dalila "on a par with de Reszke’s Roméo, de Lucia’s Canio, Ternina’s Isolde, Calvé’s Carmen and Maurel’s Iago."
When the Met and its trustees raised sufficient "hush money" for Oscar Hammerstein and the Manhattan Opera closed down, Gerville-Réache appeared with the Chicago, Philadelphia and
Montreal companies, but mostly sang in extensive recital tours and as soloist with symphonies throughout the United States. She had taken up residence there in 1910 with her husband (the
director of the Pasteur Institute in New York) and their two young sons. Her last hours of life found her besieged with an unbelievable combination of violent illnesses. Ptomaine poisoning
triggered a ruptured appendix, which induced a miscarriage, and she died in New York at the tragically young age of 32.
(courtesy of Charles B. Mintzer)
She possessed the voice of a fine cello swathed in burgundy-colored velvet. A true, sonorous
contralto with many of the better qualities of Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Louise Homer, remarkably amalgamated into a single human voice.
Gerville-Réache’s voice cannot but leave an impression on those hearing her, and sometimes the initial impression is not a good one when the listener is exposed to a "true" contralto for possibly
the first time. The fact that she recorded unfamiliar music may also explain why some self-styled "experts" have used the word "disagreeable" when referring to her voice; she seems to have
been not the correct nationality, nor singing from an acceptable repertoire, while similar sounding English contraltos are praised to the heavens. But in record after record (not that there
are all that many of them), she displays a remarkable range which encompasses cavernous lows to ringing, apparently effortless high notes.
Jeanne Gerville-Réache as Orphée at the Opera-Comique, 1899
She brought life to arias from Paul et Virginie, Vivirande and L’Enfant prodigue, and is compelling in excerpts from more familiar works such as Il Trovatore and Orfeo ed Euridice.
Her only recording in German, Schumann’s "Ich grolle nicht," is one of her finest and perhaps her most maligned by the "experts." Again, Gerville-Réache stepped out of acceptable bounds
here by singing a piece not customarily included in a female singer’s repertoire, with perhaps overly careful attention to German diction (the final consonants are distinctly separate syllables)
and an orchestral accompaniment. The orchestra is of no importance whatsoever. Her splendid voice overwhelms the recording, and if it is not a classic example of the art form of lieder
"by-the-books," it is a rousing souvenir of this fine contralto’s voice just the same. Hers was without doubt a voice to be cherished and remembered.
Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix
(Dalila in Samson et Dalila / Saint-Saëns / Columbia 1909)
All of Gerville-Réaches surviving 18 recordings (including two sides she made for Columbia shortly before her death) were remastered by Ward Marston when he was doing transfers for the Opal CD label.
My warmest thanks to George Parous and Charles B. Mintzer