Star French tenor Benjamin Bernheim – “a sumptuous voice, fiery sensitivity, and poetic musicality” (Le Monde) – explores the work of Italian opera composers in France. Documenting more than a hundred years of Italian operatic music in France, Bernheim’s new album Boulevard des Italiens will be released on Deutsche Grammophon on 8 April 2022. Music stretching from Spontini’s La Vestale to Mascagni’s Amica – all sung in French – receives gold-star treatment from Bernheim, a tenor ideally placed to sing this repertoire in his native language. As he explains, “The aim was really to show the history of the French language in opera houses in Paris by way of these Italian composers who brought their pieces there. With the Opéra Garnier at one end, and the Opéra-Comique at the other, the Boulevard des Italiens is where it all happened.”
Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, Paris was the operatic capital of Europe. From Cherubini to Mascagni, Italian composers in particular were drawn to the city with its cosmopolitan outlook and opera-loving audiences. This resulted in an exciting and productive mutual exchange between the French and Italian theatrical traditions. Almost without exception, works were staged in French, whatever their country of origin, and in adapting their music to work with the sonorities of the French language, Italian composers rose to new levels of melodic creativity.
On Boulevard des Italiens, Bernheim performs a representative selection of their operatic calling cards, having turned to the Venice-based Palazzetto Bru Zane – Centre de musique romantique française for advice on repertoire. As he explains, in addition to giving inspired ideas and suggestions, the organisation also “helped us enormously, doing amazing work on editing not just the vocal scores, but the orchestral ones as well”.
It was Spontini who ushered in the new era of Romantic opera in Paris, with his groundbreaking La Vestale of 1807 – a gripping, passionate scene from this work provides the earliest music on Boulevard des Italiens. Bernheim also performs music by Spontini’s near contemporary Cherubini, with an aria taken from the little-known Ali Baba (1833) and notable for its use of the high Cs which by this time every tenor had to have as part of his vocal armoury.
From the early 1800s onwards, the roster of visiting Italian composers grew. One of the most successful among their ranks was Donizetti. Bernheim has chosen excerpts from three of the operas the composer premiered in the French capital, including the less frequently performed Dom Sébastien, his final work in the genre, as well as the ever popular La Fille du régiment and La Favorite.
When it comes to the towering figure of Verdi, Bernheim has even bigger surprises in store. It is a revelation to hear the lilting tenor aria from Jérusalem, the composer’s French version of I lombardi – “transformed beyond all recognition”, as Verdi put it – as well as a genuine rarity, an aria for the tenor hero in his epic Les Vêpres siciliennes. This number was written not for the first performance but as a replacement aria in a later revival, and tucked away as an appendix in one early edition of the score. Verdi’s Don Carlos is, as Bernheim says, “a central piece for me”. For this album he selected the hero’s beautiful opening aria and the famous stirring duet for tenor and baritone in its longer, more nuanced original French version, featuring a guest appearance from baritone Florian Sempey.
The connections between Puccini and Paris are many and deep, not least for the version of Madama Butterfly premiered at the Opéra-Comique in 1906 which established the definitive score of the opera. Up until the 1960s it was customary to sing Puccini in French. In reviving this tradition with two well-known arias from Madama Butterfly and Tosca, Bernheim gives an ideal demonstration of the way that “the French language, with its different accents and more nasal vowels, brings a new sonority to this music”.
Completing the historical overview, an extended scene from Mascagni’s rarely-given Amica, written to a French libretto and first performed in Monte Carlo in 1905, allows Bernheim to revel in the sound of French combined with Italian verismo at its most heartfelt.
The recording sessions with conductor Frédéric Chaslin and the Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna took place in April 2021 – “just as the world was opening up again”, recalls Bernheim. “It was a wonderful feeling, both personally and musically,” he adds. “We were literally immersed in Italian sonorities.”
Benjamin Bernheim has received widespread acclaim for both his stage performances and his 2019 debut album on Deutsche Grammophon, for whom he records exclusively. On Boulevard des Italiens, the singer hailed by Diapason as “the new star tenor” not only gives an object lesson in French operatic singing, with diction praised for its “miraculous clarity”, but provides a fascinating survey of the symbiotic relationship between Paris and generations of Italian composers.