Jeanne Gerville-Réache (1882-1915)
How to Sing the Famous Aria of "Dalila"
When in 1908 I accepted Oscar Hammerstein's invitation to create in America the part of Dalila a little council of war was called together in Paris at Mme. Viardot's house. It was to the famous singer that "Samson et Dalila" was inscribed. It was at her house in Croisse that on August 20, 1874, the first private performance had been given of that opera, which had to triumph in Weimar and in Brussels before receiving a hearing on the French stage.
Saint-Saens, much elated over the news that his work was to be produced in the United States, and Mme. Viardot Garcia, almost hysterical at the thought that "her opera" was to be sung by one of her pupils, decided to put me for a few months through the most strenuous training a singer ever underwent.
With the composer at the piano and the greatest contralto of the country fairly holding a club over my head, I was made to rehearse three hours a day until Mme. Viardot Garcia gradually grew kind and finally uttered her celebrated, "Eh bien, ma petite, marche." This was her way of announcing to a pupil that her interpretation of a part was satisfactory. She was very sparing of praise and when a pupil heard the longed for "Eh bien, ma petite, marche," the pupil felt as though an audience of 3,000 had been cheering loudly. It was during those morning rehearsals that the following interpretation of the lovely aria "Mon coeur s'ouvre â ta voix" was gradually agreed upon by composer, coach and singer.
I will for the sake of convenience, number the measures of the aria (Schirmer edition) for one to one hundred. Let me first of all mark off those of the breathing pauses which are not clearly indicated by the music itself. In measure 4, breathe after "voix"; in 6, after "fleur"; in 20, after "Dalila"; in 22 after "jamais"; in 24 after "tendresse"; in 27, between "serments" and "que j'aimais"; take no breath from "que j'aimais" in 27 until measure 31, where a very dramatic effect can be produced by breathing between E natural and E flat and repeating "réponds" on E flat and D; in 33, after "tendresse"; in 35, before E natural and E flat; take no breath from 42 to 45; take no breath form 52 to 55; in 69, breath after "rapide"; in 80, after "réponds"; on 82 after "tendresse"; in 84, between E natural and E flat; take no breath from 91 to 95.
Now for the tempi; 3-8 very slow and soft; a slight emphasis emphasis on "bien-aimé" in warmth and passion in 12; 15 and 16 extremely legato; more warmth and passion in 18-21; repressed passion in 23-25; slow down and sing in very large style 34 and 35; in 36-41 increase the volume of voice so as to work up progressively toward the climax in 42; 43 begins pianissimo, in strong contrast with 42, and ends forte, the voice increasing to fortissimo on G in 44 to drop again to the softest pianissimo on D. From 52 to 57 quiet recitative tone; emphasis on "frémit" in 60-61; steady crescendo form 64 to 77; then sing 79-100 like 30-46 with the added brilliancy and warmth of a finale. Almost every note in 91-94 should be detached and declaimed with the proper dramatic accent.
Jeanne Gerville-Réache as Dalila
Fortunately, Gerville-Réache left a gramophone recording for the reader to compare with the written record. You can listen to it here.
The amazing thing, of course, is that Gerville-Réache's interpretation is very likely that of Viardot-Garcia's as given in the first private performance in 1874. Isn't that something?
For additional information on Gerville-Réache, please visit the excellent site Cantabile-Subito.