Fernand Ansseau, Dramatic Belgian Tenor

Ansseau started his studies as a baritone but moved into the tenor repertoire, though always retaining a strong lower register that served him well in Wagner and heroic roles later in his career. He was acclaimed for his rich timbre and had a very pleasing stage presence. At times, he lacked strong rhythmic emphasis, which sometimes lessened his dramatic impact, but certain operas, such as Massenet’s Werther and Auber’s La muette de Portici, brought out his best, creating incisive and powerful portrayals. He was considered the greatest of the French-speaking tenors of his age. That is probably an exaggeration as there were many extraordinary tenors singing at about this time (see Georges Thill, for example).

I’m beginning to sound like a broken record (no pun intended), but this voice is as wonderful as it is because the sound production is free. That is, there is no squeezing of throat or use of the swallowing muscles to produce a sound.

Pays merveilleux,
Jardins fortunés,
Temple radieux, salut!

Ô Paradis sorti de l’onde,
Ciel si bleu, ciel si pur,
Dont mes yeux sont ravis,
Tu m’appartiens, ô nouveau monde,
Dont j’aurai doté mon pays,
Dont j’aurai doté mon pays!

À nous ces capagnes vermeilles,
À nous cet Éden retrouvé!
Ô trésors charmants,
O merveilles, salut!
Mon nouveau tu m’appartiens!
Sois donc à moi
À moi, sois donc à moi
Ô beau pays!

Mon nouveau, tu a’appartiens;
sois donc à moi, sois donc à moi,
à moi, à mois.

You enchanted land,
Gardens of delight,
Radiant temple, all hail!

O Paradise, aris’n from the ocean,
Sky so blue, sky so clear,
Of which my eyes are delighted,
You, new-found shore
Belong to me
I will endow my country my country with you,
I will endow my country, with you, my prize!

Our own are the fair meadows waiving
This Eden regain’d is ours!
Rich are your treasures, rare are your beauties, all hail!

You new-found shore! You are my own,
Be mine alone!
Be mine, be only mine,
Oh, beautiful country

My new-found shore, you belong to me;
Be mine alone, be mine alone,
Mine, Mine!

Compare Ansseau’s sound with a modern tenor. The modern tenor has a wobble, and he is grinding his vocal cords to push a sound out. He has a lot of trouble with the high notes (that is, he is not singing the right notes).   This is the way in which most modern singers sing.

“O Paradis” begins at about 5:06 into the clip.

Jean’s aria from Act IV of Massenet’s Hérodiade

Adieu donc, vains objets
qui nous charment sur terre!
Salut! Salut! premiers rayons de l’immortalité!
L’infini m’appelle et m’éclaire,
Je meurs pour la justice et pour la liberté!
Je ne regrette rien de ma prison d’argile
Fuyant l’humanité je vais calme et tranquille
M’envelopper d’éternité!
Je ne regrette rien, et pourtant… ô faiblesse! je songe à cette enfant!
Je songe à cette enfant dont les traits radieux sont présents à mes yeux!
Souvenir qui m’oppresse!
Souvenir… qui m’oppresse! toujours… je songe à cette enfant!
Seigneur! si je suis ton fils,
Seigneur! si je suis ton fils,
Dis-moi pourquoi,
Dis-moi pourquoi
Tu souffres que l’amour vienne ébranler ma foi?
Et si je sors meurtri, vaincu de cette lutte,
Qui l’a permis? à qui la faute de la chute?
Souvenir…qui m’oppresse!
Seigneur! si je suis ton fils!
Dis-moi pourquoi, dis-moi pourquoi
Tu souffres que l’amour vienne ébranler ma foi?
Seigneur! suis-je ton fils? suis-je ton fils?
O Seigneur! O Seigneur!

Jean’s aria from Act IV of Massenet’s Hériodiade

Farewell, then,
vain things of earthly charm.
Hail! Hail! first rays of immortality.
The infinite calls me, and lights my way.
I die for justice and for liberty!
I do not regret this prison of clay,
for when I leave this humanity l shall be clothed in eternity.
I do not regret anything, yet, such is my weakness,
I dream of that child.
I dream of that child,
whose radiant features
are present to my eyes.
Her memory weighs upon me.
Her memory weighs upon me. Ever do I dream
of her!
O Lord! I am your son,
O Lord! I am your son,
Tell me why,
Tell me why,
Why do you permit love to come to me and disturb
my faith?
O Lord! Yes, I am your son!
Yes, I am your son!
O Lord! O Lord!

Recondita armonia

Recondita armonia
di bellezze diverse!…
E’ bruna Floria,
l’ardente amante mia,
e te, beltate ignota,
cinta di chiome bionde!
Tu azzurro hai l’occhio,
Tosca ha l’occhio nero!
L’arte nel suo mistero
le diverse bellezze insiem confonde:
Ma nel ritrar costei
Il mio solo pensiero,
il mio sol pensier sei tu,
Tosca, sei tu!

Difficult to understand harmony

Oh the mysterious harmony of diverse beauties!
Floria is dark, my ardent lover,
And you, unknown beauty,
Have a ring of blonde hair!
Your eyes are blue
Tosca’s are black!
Art in all its mystery
Mixes various beauties together:
But while I’m painting her
my only thought,
My only thought is you,
Tosca, it’s you!

Fernand Ansseau:
March 6, 1890 in Boussu-Bois – May 1, 1972 in Brussels

Fernand Ansseau’s background was musical. His father played the organ in the village church of Boussu-Bois near Mons (Wallonia) where the artist was born. At the age of 17 he entered the Brussels conservatory and became a student of the noted teacher Désiré Demest. It was in church music (Mozart’s Requiem) he appeared for the first time. Demest trained him as a baritone, but Ansseau felt that he was making too little progress. His teacher directed him to change to tenor, noticing his student’s increasing ease with the upper register. After studying three years with the celebrated Flemish tenor Ernest van Dijck, Ansseau made his widely acclaimed debut as Jean in Massenet’s Hérodiade (the role was to become one of his most successful achievements). During his career he appeared in roles such as Sigurd, Faust, Julien and Don José. He was the tenor lead in Saint-Saëns’ first performance of Les Barbares. As a Belgian patriot he refused to appear on the operatic stage during World War I and sang only occasionally. After the war he resumed his operatic career at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, as Canio (1918). Particularly in Auber’s liberation opera La Muette de Portici he was much applauded. His repertory at “The Munt” included Radames, Samson, The Duke of Mantua, Jean, Don Alvaro, Faust (Berlioz), Des Grieux (Manon) and Cavaradossi. He remained at this important opera house until his retirement. 1919 saw his Covent Garden debut, singing Des Grieux with the soprano Marie-Louise Edvina as Manon and Beecham as conductor. Ansseau became a well-known singer at Covent Garden and appeared as Faust, Canio, Cavaradossi and Roméo, opposite Dame Nelly Melba. He refused a generous offer by general manager Gatti-Casazza in 1920 to sing at the Met, not keen to leave home for an extended period. In 1922 he sang at the Paris Opéra as Jean, Alain (Grisélidis), Roméo, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Admète (opposite Germaine Lubin) and again as Roméo. From 1923 to 1928 he was a regular member of the Chicago Civic Opera, enjoying remarkable popularity. The “Reigning Queen”, Mary Garden was full of praise for the tenor, becoming a favorite partner of the Diva. He was the tenor lead opposite her in Alfano’s Risurrezione and in Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei tre Re. Ansseau spent his active years in Brussels but often reappeared in Ghent and Antwerp. His last performance at the La Monnaie was in 1939. His rather early retirement was often linked to the war and given a patriotic twist, also by Ansseau himself. Some people who knew him attribute it more to saturation. From 1942 to 1944 he served as a Professor of Voice at the Brussels conservatory, devoting the following decades to his hobbies, fishing and gardening. He died where his was born, in Boussu-Bois.