The French coloratura soprano Mady Mesplé, who has died aged 89, displayed a prodigious technical control that took the breath away, even if the light, needle-sharp tonal quality of her voice inevitably restricted the projection of emotion.
From the time of her debut in the title role of Délibes’ Lakmé with the Liège Opera in 1953 she was regarded as a potential rival to her compatriot Mado Robin, hitherto regarded as the prime exponent of the part. When Robin died in 1960, Mesplé took her place and Lakmé became her signature role.
In the famous Bell Song of that opera Mesplé brought her tinkling coloratura to bear, her crystalline tone sailing effortlessly into the ether. The pellucid, yet disembodied quality of the voice lent itself well to numbers such as the Bell Song or Olympia’s Doll Song (Les Oiseaux dans la Charmille, the birds in the bower) in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, in which the mechanical doll needs to be rewound to continue.
Yet to some ears the cranking of the winding mechanism all too graphically reflected Mesplé’s automaton-like delivery of embellishments that defied belief, its superhuman qualities providing their own critique.
There was no gainsaying her technical command, however: she could maintain pitch unwaveringly even in the highest register. And there was a genuine thrill for audiences too when she settled on the penultimate note of a coloratura party piece, already implausibly stratospheric, allowing a short pause to raise expectations before hitting a note a fourth higher (the A flat three octaves above middle C was a particular favourite).
The role of Leila in Bizet’s Pearl Fishers was another in which she scored considerable success, while a talent for playing comedy without exaggeration stood her in good stead in roles such as Adèle in Rossini’s Comte d’Ory. Bel canto roles such as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia and the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor, however, were more of a challenge.
The coloratura was flawless and the moulding of phrases always impressive, but her Rosina was a bloodless creation, dramatically unengaging, while in Lucia’s Mad Scene her voice compared unfavourably with the warm, sensuous tones of a Sutherland.
Operetta was a genre in which she excelled, however, doubtless because emotional depths did not need to be plumbed. As can be heard on the disc devoted to operetta in Erato’s four-CD set of her recordings dating from 1967 to 1989, Mesplé was delectable in the lighter offerings of Offenbach, Léhar, Messager and Massé. Her emotionally reserved, understated accounts of mélodies by the likes of Fauré, Hahn, Debussy, Gounod and Roussel are also well represented in the Erato set.
That they are largely successful has much to do with the French tradition of allowing the musical line to tell the story rather than attempting to colour individual words. A particular gem in this collection is her rendering of Satie’s cabaret song Je Te Veux, which is intimate and confiding rather than seductive, with subtle deployment of vibrato and tonal colouring.
Born in Toulouse into a musical family, Mesplé was a keen pianist, and her studies were encouraged by her mother, who worked in a clothing firm. Mesplé studied at the Toulouse Conservatory and following her success with Liège Opera was soon engaged at La Monnaie, the opera house in Brussels, singing Lucia and the Queen of Night in The Magic Flute (another role that might have been written for her).
In 1956 she joined the Opéra-Comique in Paris, where she created the role of Kitty in Menotti’s The Last Savage alongside Gabriel Bacquier (1963). Her performance was noted not only for its vocal excellence but also the aplomb with which she disported herself in a variety of fetching costumes from redbooted safari outfit to cocktail dress.
Other contemporary works in which she took roles included those by Hans Werner Henze (Elegy for Young Lovers), Betsy Jolas and Charles Chaynes. The ethereal quality of her voice was deployed by Pierre Boulez for his recording of Schoenberg’s Die Jakobsleiter (Jacob’s Ladder) in which she takes the role of The Soul soaring wordlessly in the upper reaches of the firmament.
The dizzying range accorded Zerbinetta in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos also held no terrors for her, though her diction in German and Italian operas was never as clear as it was in her native repertory. Her debut at the Paris Opéra was as Sister Constance of St Denis in the French premiere of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (1958). Other roles she sang included the ingénue Sophie in Massenet’s Werther, Norina in Don Pasquale, Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera and Marie in La Fille du Régiment.
She made her Metropolitan debut as Gilda in Rigoletto (1973) but the size of her voice was unequal to the demands of the vast auditorium, and although she sang throughout Europe and America, her career was essentially centred on France.
She retired from the operatic stage in 1985, but continued to perform in concerts and give recitals for a number of years. In the mid-90s she began to suffer from Parkinson’s disease and wrote a book, Voix du Corps (Voice of the Body, 2010), about her career, describing the experience of living with the illness. She was appointed grand officier of the Legion of Honour in 2015.
• Mady (Magdeleine) Mesplé, soprano, born 7 March 1931; died 30 May 2020