Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Fable of Adolphe Nourrit

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Fable of Adolphe Nourrit

Article excerpt

STANDING IN THE COURTYARD OF THE HOTEL BARBAJA IN NAPLES, I looked up to the balcony from which the famous nineteenth century tenor Adolphe Nourrit (1802-1839) jumped to his death. In operatic circles, a fable has grown up around Nourrit: he sang his high notes in falsetto; when Duprez began to sing high notes in full voice, Nourrit committed suicide in despair.

The fable raises questions. Why did he jump to his death? How did Nourrit sing? Did he actually sing all of his highest notes with a female imitative quality? Many people have thought of Nourrit's voice as a cross between the vocal qualities of Michael Jackson and Tiny Tim. A close examination of the historical record significantly challenges the often repeated story.

It is impossible to be absolutely certain about the sound of Nourrit's voice. Since we cannot travel back in time with a high quality tape recorder, spectrograph, and electroglottograph, we are forced to rely on the adequacies and inadequacies of written sources. Fortunately, there is a wealth of reviews, scores, letters, and articles that shed light on the sound of the tenor's voice.

What is undisputable is that between 1822 and 1837 Nourrit successfully created twenty- two roles at the Paris Opéra. Authorities agree that the 1830s were a time of great transition for the operatic tenor voice. Close examination of the historical record leads the reader to a model of Nourrit's sound which is very similar to the production of modern leggiero tenors. We will look at sources that indicate his use of a wide variety of colors, including full head voice (voce piena in testa), voix blanche (voce finta), voix mixte (voce mista), and falsetto. This wide range of timbres is in marked contrast to the view generally held.

We will begin with an overview of Nourrit's career with special attention to changes in singing styles. Diday and Pétrequin's groundbreaking 1840 article on voix sombrée will be discussed. Finally, a brief examination of the different types of vocal productions Nourrit could have employed will lead to a reassessment of how he might have sung.


Salle Le Peletier

When Nourrit made his debut at nineteen years of age in September 1821, the new home of the Paris Opéra, Salle Le Peletier, had just opened the previous month. It had a capacity of 1,900 and usually used a large orchestra, with an average of eighty-five players.1 This is significant because of the issue of audibility over a large orchestra in the considerable house. One commentator wrote that singers at the Opéra often experienced "a rapid deterioration of their voices because of the huge space and the formidable orchestral forces ... Nourrit alone had the power to succeed in battle with these forces."2 Clearly, this is contrary to the fable.

Manuel Garcia, the Elder, and Rossini

Nourrit was the most famous male student of Manuel Garcia, the elder. Garcia was said to be the only voice teacher of the time who knew how to develop the chest voice while adding the two upper registers.3 A recent book-length biography of Nourrit's teacher noted:

In Garcia's teaching, power and flexibility were not seen as incompatible ... the modern notion of a Rossini tenor as a light, flexible voice has nothing in common with what Garcia's interpretation must have been. His [Garcia's] voice had amazing flexibility, but it also had power. He taught his students to have the same.4

Such a description sounds like full head voice.

In 1827, Nourrit created the role of Aménophis in Rossini's Moïse, which appears to have marked a turning point in the singing style at the Opéra. Most of the singers by this time were using an open voiced, sensuous manner inculcated in them by the composer.5 Gilbert-Louis Duprez's debut at the Opéra did not occur until ten years later.

Faculty at the Paris Conservatory

At the end of 1827, Nourrit was named to the Paris Conservatory faculty on the basis of his great successes in performance. …

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