Georges Thill

t e n o r


GEORGES THILL was the greatest French tenor of the twentieth century. Born in Paris on 14 December 1897, little is known about his childhood or early adulthood, except that he became an outside broker on the Stock Exchange where he entertained his coworkers by singing arias from great operas which he had learned from other tenors' recordings. In early 1916 he was conscripted into the army, and went immediately to the Front. There he became an exemplary soldier, noted for his kindness, courage, and high spirits. He returned home at the end of the war to a job his uncle had arranged for him. The same uncle encouraged Thill to apply for entry to the Paris Conservatoire, which he did, and he was admitted as a student of solfège and voice. His teachers at the Conservatoire were Ernest Dupré and the famous bass André Gresse. Unsatisfied with his vocal progress, Thill left Paris in 1920 for Naples, where he continued his studies for two years with Fernando de Lucia, one of the leading and most mannered exponents of the nineteenth century Italian bel canto school. It seemed an odd choice for Thill, given the two men's very different vocal and stylistic sensibilities, but it is likely de Lucia who helped Thill achieve his characteristic effective blend of idiomatic French diction and stylistic sensibility with unquestionably bel canto vocal legato and mezza-voce. De Lucia may have also helped Thill strengthen his middle register. In any case, Thill returned to France possessed of a "demi-caractére" voice (that is, a voice halfway between a "tenore di grazia" and a "tenore di forza") that was ready for professional exposure. He began an intensive study of tenor roles, some of which he later admitted he was not suited to, either in tessitura or temperament. In total honesty, he confessed, the role of Pâris in Offenbach's La Belle Hélène suited him better than Tannhäuser.
          Thill made his Paris Opéra debut in 1924, as Nicias in Massenet's Thaïs. He also appeared at l'Opéra in the French premières of La Traviata (1926), Rabaud's Marouf (1928, with Marcelle Denya and Marcel Journet), and Turandot (1928). His Opéra-Comique debut came in 1928, as Don José in Carmen. In the next two decades, he would sing practically every tenor leading role in the two houses' repertories. 1928 also saw Thill's Covent Garden debut, as Samson (a "signature" role), and his debut at the Arena di Verona, as Calaf (another "signature" role), which he sang again in 1929 at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires and at La Scala. He was a success at the Rome Opera, and returned to La Scala in 1930 as Andrea Chénier, Dick Johnson in La Fanciulla del West, and as Calaf. But the hard-to-please Milan audiences, enamoured as they were of high notes and histrionics, remained cool to Thill, and he did not return again. Coming up against rivals like Gigli, Lauri Volpi, and Martinelli, Thill sang only two seasons (1931-1932) at the Metropolitan Opera, appearing in mainly French roles - Roméo, Don José, Faust, Gérard in Lakmé, - but also as Sadko, Radamès, and Cavaradossi, singing the last two in smooth, fluent Italian. Over the next decades he went on to sing at the Wiener Staatsoper and Monte Carlo (often), and gave concerts and recitals in almost every country in Europe (journeying as far as Odessa during his 1937 Russian tour) and in South America.
          Thill's repertoire of over fifty leading roles was vast, and demonstrated an amazing versatility. By his retirement, he had sung most of the standard roles in French and Italian repertoire, plus several Wagnerian roles (of which he was particularly fond). Only Plácido Domingo has sung this widely throughout the tenor repertoire. This excelled equally in early operas like Gluck's Alceste and Iphigénie en Tauride (his "Bannis la crainte" and "Unis dès la plus tendre enfance" have been called required listening), and also non-operatic works by Bach; in French grand-opéras, both lyrical (Roméo et Juliette, Faust, Lakmé, Werther, Manon) and dramatic (Les Troyens - his heroic outpouring in Enée's "Inutile regrets" is also required listening - and Samson et Dalila); in Verdi (Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aïda, and on record, Otello); in Verismo (I Pagliacci, Andrea Chénier); in Puccini (Tosca, La Fanciulla del West, Turandot); in Wagner (Lohengrin, Parsifal, Tannhäuser, Meistersinger; Thill also recorded an unusually melodius Siegmund in Die Walküre); as well as the premières of several modern works (Gaubert's Naïla, Huë's Le Miracle, Lazzari's La Tour de Feu (with Marcel Journet and Fanny Heldy, Ruhlmann conducting), Guinsbourg's Satan, Canteloube's patriotic Vercingétorix (1933), Rabaud's Rolande). On top of all this, he was also a frequent concert artist and recitalist, touring Europe, Russia (1937), and South America in this capacity.
          Thill was also prolific in the recording studio from the late 1920s through the mid-1940s, producing over 150 titles - including several opera compilations (Carmen, Louise, Otello) and at least two complete opera recordings, Carmen with Raymonde Visconti, and a seminal Werther (1931) with Ninon Vallin. During the Second World War his patriotic recording of "La rêve passé" became a battle-cry to all the Free French. There is an unusual story about Thill in the recording studio. Thill and Vallin had not got along well during the recording sessions for Werther,, and in 1935, when they began recording what was meant to be a complete Louise, their relationship worsened to the extent that, in utter fury, Vallin walked out of the recording sessions, leaving Columbia Records with an incomplete, disjointed set of recordings. When asked later what caused the rupture between her and Thill she would only reply by referring to the tenor as "ridiculous...a big baby, and a bad colleague." We shall never know what actually transpired, but suffice it to say this description of Thill was totally uncharacteristic. The tenor was was widely regarded as extremely kind, highly professional, supportive of his colleagues, and generally even-tempered and easy to get along with. In France, Thill was so popular he also became a movie star (an honour reserved for the greatest tenors). He was the male lead in several motion pictures in France, most notably Abel Gance's 1938 film of Charpentier's Louise, also starring Grace Moore and bass André Pernet, and supervised by the composer himself.
          Thill's enormous discography/videography reflects not only the diversity of his art, but also his vocal genius. He was a master both of the lyrical phrase and the voix-mixte. Though his voice was a large, masculine, vibrantly ringing and evenly produced spinto, thrilling in its power, Thill was also blessed with an intimate, velvet-soft, warm timbre, a subtle sensuality, and a rich vibrato. His was a voice of stunning natural beauty refined by flawless diction, impeccable artistic taste, nobility, surprisingly modern-sounding stylistic sensibilities, and intense, unambiguous phrasing. As an artist, Thill avoided any hint of the self-indulgence and overly-mannered affectations and refinements prevalent among his contemporaries. Thill, by contrast, was a master of sophisticated, apposite stylistic inclinations and a multihued emotional and vocal palatte. His sensibilities never deteriorated into sentimentalism, and instead persuaded with sincerity and natural charm. Not only was his voice absolutely splendid, with its superb vocal legato and sensual warmth, Thill rejected the unearthly romanticism of the French tradition. Instead, he favoured a broad, sensual singing style that was surprisingly modern, yet still respected certain qualities of the opéra-lyrique, particularly regarding the production of high notes using the voix-mixte between chest and head (almost, but not quite, a falsetto), which had been widely practised in French opera during the second half of the nineteenth century.
          Vocally and dramatically, Thill succeeded in both lyric and spinto repertoire. His Werther is legendary, and possibly unequalled before or since. Characterized by an ardent, disruptive, Byronian romanticism, his robustly passionate rendering of the self-destructive poet was far different from the intimate, weak and sickly Werther of his contemporary, Tito Schipa. As a singer, Thill was a non-conformist, with a refined vocality and dramatic sense that stood out in strong contrast against the superficiality and ostentation of some of his tenor contemporaries who seemed to wallow in the vocal and dramatic excesses of the Verismo tradition. Thill's Canio, for example, was drawn on an intimate scale, poignantly neurotic and confused, avoiding the larger-than-life histrionics that so often characterised readings of this role. His Chénier was a true poet, a dreamer, an idealist. As Calaf (a "signature role"), he was simply charming.
          Some critics have faulted Thill for his high notes. They blame his "open" phonation for creating an upper register that sounded somewhat faded (one critic used the word "impoverished") compared with the rest of his vocal compass. And yet, Thill incorporated into his repertoire some of the most demanding, high-tessitura roles in opera: Arnaud in Guillaume Tell, Raoul in Les Huguenots - a role for which Lauri-Volpi, in his memoirs, praised Thill highly - and Jean in Le Prophète. If Thill did have a "short top," in these roles at least, his dramatic commitment must have enabled him to overcome any technical difficulties, showing off a range that was actually impressively broad. A few recordings demonstrate seemingly-effortless high notes, produced with Thill's celestial voix-mixte: the (slightly sharp) D flat at the end of the Rigoletto duet between Gilda and the Duca di Mantova; the high C in "Salut! demeure chaste et pure" from Faust. Based on these recordings, one wonders what the critics were talking about. In any case, his "high note problem" clearly did not inhibit Thill in his choice of repertoire.
          Thill bid farewell to the opera stage in 1953, with a last Canio at the Paris Opéra. For the next three years, he travelled the world giving concerts, then retired completely from singing in 1956. He died, almost thirty years later, in 1984 in Draguignan, France.

- Karen Mercedes(Copyright © 2000 by Karen Mercedes)


- L'Avant Scène Opéra, Opérette: "L'Opéra Français: Georges Thill" (Mensuel hors série, September 1984)