An Appreciation by Joseph Newsome
In his article Wagner et Tannhäuser à Paris, Charles Baudelaire wrote, ‘Un artiste, un homme
vraiment digne de ce grand nom, doit posséder quelque chose d’essentiellement sui generis, par
la grâce de quoi il est lui et non un autre’ – an artist, a man truly worthy of that distinction,
must possess something essentially sui generis, by which he is himself and no one else. The condition
imposed by Baudelaire upon an individual’s recognition as a true artist surely applies as much to
singers as to Wagner and other composers. Singing is an art, after all, but the mere physical act
of singing no more qualifies one as a genuine artist than painting an image of a water lily earns
one’s work space at the Musée d’Orsay. Even the relatively rarefied fact of being a coloratura
soprano does not guarantee one’s acceptance as an artist: there are far more singers capable of
singing stratospheric acuti than there are singers who inspire audiences to want to hear them.
Singing the most demanding roles in the coloratura soprano repertory with an elegance and
prowess that make them rewarding emotional experiences rather than purely technical
challenges is that ‘something essentially sui generis’ in the singing of Annick Massis.
Her vocal plumage is spectacular, but the quality of her work far exceeds that of a
standard-issue coloratura warbler.Taking her Fach and nationality into account, it is inevitable
that Ms. Massis is compared with the dynamic French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay, never more
so than when the two singers shared the name-part in the inaugural run of Mary Zimmerman’s much-discussed
production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera. The famous Madame Dessay was
given the lucrative opening night and subsequent performances prior to surrendering the role to
Ms. Massis, who made her MET début as Lucia a few years prior, for three performances.
The anonymous remarks included in the New York Times’ 19 October 2007 Classical Music listings effectively
summarize the often-frustrating New York preference for glitz over genuine glamour: ‘Given the success
Natalie Dessay enjoyed in the title role of the Met's new production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor,
not to mention the intense promotional campaign behind her appearance, an opera buff could not be blamed
for thinking that there is no reason to attend performances this week. Not so.
Taking over the role is the exceptional and lovely French lyric coloratura soprano Annick Massis.’
Fortunately, though, even star-struck audiences (and critics) are subject to falling under the spell of
an exceptionally gifted artist, and it was bewitching magic that Ms. Massis brought to her New York Lucia.
Writing for ClassicsToday.com, critic Robert Levine celebrated the value of truly beautiful singing.
‘This new production was mounted for French soprano Natalie Dessay, a wren-like, highly emotive singer;
three performances, however,are being taken by another, very different singer, also French, Annick Massis,
who sang on the 17th [17 October 2007]. Tall, lovely and primarily reserved, Ms. Massis has one of the most
beautiful, perfectly produced voices in the world. She moves gracefully and her fidgeting and
nervousness, part of Ms. Zimmerman’s direction, was noted and effective, but she does not really
give the impression of fragility. That having been said, I suspect there will be no more enchanting
singing at the Met this year than what Ms. Massis offered.’ While Ms. Dessay’s dramatic gifts
cannot be doubted, Ms. Massis’ voice is warmer and more rounded than her famous countrywoman’s and mostly
avoids the edge that Ms. Dessay’s tone can take on in the extreme upper register. What Ms. Dessay accomplishes
with overt dramatic extravagance Ms. Massis brings off with focused, tonally-poised singing and careful
attention to the text. Opera-goers in the Twenty-First Century are fortunate that the world’s stages
harmoniously accommodate both ladies, but the quality of Ms. Massis’ singing deserves at least the level
of renown enjoyed by her famous colleague.
Born in Paris, Ms. Massis came relatively late to singing after having first taken two degrees at
university and pursued a career as a primary-school teacher. A pensive woman for whom music
is an art of sublime emotional expression, the decision to embark on a career as a singer was not
easily reached by Ms. Massis despite her extraordinary natural talent. She made her operatic
début in 1991 at the Capitole de Toulouse. Her earliest performances garnered the attention of
celebrated French director Gabriel Dussurget, an accomplished artist whose work at the Opéra
de Paris began in 1959 with a production of Carmen by Raymond Rouleau (in which the title role
was sung by Jane Rhodes) and who is credited with having been among the first directors to
recognize the promise of the young Roberto Alagna, and the conductor Bernard Thomas, a pupil
of Igor Markevitch and Jean Fournet under whose baton Ms. Massis gave some of her first
performances of Baroque repertory. Her début at the Opéra de Paris followed in 1994, as the
Contessa in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro.Baroque and Early Music were prominent in the early years
of Ms. Massis’ international career. She especially excelled in roles from the French Baroque repertory
and the operas of Georg Friedrich Händel, which she sang with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants,
Jean-ClaudeMalgoire and La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy, and Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre.
These engagements also led to Ms. Massis’ first recordings, including those of Händel’s Roman motets and
La Ressurezione (a recording about which noted Händel scholar Stanley Sadie, writing in Gramophone,
was enthusiastic, noting that ‘a bright and lively Angel is provided by Annick Massis, fluent in the divisions
and effective in the willful lines of ‘D’amor fu consiglio’) and Rameau’s Anacréon and Hippolyte et Aricie.
From there, Ms. Massis expanded her repertory into the French and Italian coloratura repertories
on which her reputation as one of the finest singers of her generation is founded. After singing
the role of Philine in Ambroise Thomas’ Mignon at the Théâtre Impérial de Compiègne in 1992, Ms. Massis was
in demand throughout France for lyric and coloratura roles including Bizet’s Micaëla in Carmen and
Leïla in Les Pêcheurs de Perles, Ophélie in Thomas' Hamlet, Marie in Donizetti’s La Fille du regiment,
and Anna in Boïeldieu’s La Dame blanche, which she recorded for EMI with Marc Minkowski.
Successes in these roles led to Ms. Massis’ conquering of the Rossini soprano repertory, starting with
the high-soprano version of Il Barbiere di Siviglia created for performances in France.
Performances of the little-remembered L’Inganno felice at the Théâtre de Poissy in 1996 were recorded and
released commercially by ERATO, inspiring Richard Osborne to write in the November 1997 issue of Gramophone
that ‘Annick Massis, the Countess Adèle in Glyndebourne’s splendid recent production of Le Comte Ory
[presented in the summer of 1997 with designs by Jérôme Savary], is a charming Isabella, good in her first aria,
ravishing in her second.’ One of the most important events in the life of any operatic artist, a first appearance
with New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera, occurred for Ms. Massis on the evening of 22 June 1999 with
a concert performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor on Staten Island. Ms. Massis was rapturously received
by the audience despite less-than-ideal conditions: the performance was twice interrupted with unscheduled
intervals because of invasions by June bugs! Her house début at the MET followed three years later when,
on 6 December 2002, she sang the role of Lucia in the production by Nicolas Joël, becoming the first
French singer to perform the role at the MET since it was last sung there by Lily Pons on 12 April 1958.
She returned to Lucia for the MET in the autumn of 2007, when she alternated with Natalie Dessay in the new
Mary Zimmerman production.In addition to her triumphant performances in the leading coloratura roles of her native French
repertory, it is as the great Italian bel canto heroines – Bellini’s Amina and Elvira, Donizetti’s Lucia and Maria di Rohan, and Rossini’s Amenaide, Matilde di Shabran, and Rosina – that Ms. Massis has won the affections of audiences throughout the world.
It was in the title role of Matilde di Shabran that Ms. Massis made her début at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro in August 2004,
opposite bel canto specialist Juan Diego Flórez. The production was recorded and released on CD by DECCA,
a recording of which critic and countertenor Drew Minter wrote in the February 2007 issue of Opera News
(in which the recording was the Editor’s Choice) that ‘Massis has fun with the mocking character of the title role.
She doesn’t get to let loose all the cannons in her arsenal until Matilde’s lengthy finale, in which
she says, “Women are born to conquer and rule.” Popping around on high Cs, Ds and Es, she definitely does rule.
In fact, her perfect command of pitch and rhythm make it sound more like playful cavorting than acrobatics.’
Important débuts followed, at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in April 2005 (as Almirena in a production
of Händel’s Rinaldo by Pier Luigi Pizzi), at the Wiener Staatsoper in December 2005 (as Lucia),
at the Salzburg Festival in June 2006 (as Giunia in Jürgen Flimm’s production of Mozart’s
Lucio Silla, recorded and released on DVD in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth), and at
the Deutsche Opera Berlin in September 2006 (as Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula opposite the Elvino of Juan Diego Flórez).
Ms. Massis has enjoyed an especially rewarding relationship with the Opera Rara label, for which she has recorded roles
by Donizetti and Meyerbeer. Her recording of the title role in Meyerbeer’s forgotten Italian opera Margherita d’Anjou
earned praise from European and American critics. The legendary voice expert John Steane wrote in Gramophone that
Ms. Massis is ‘a great find, pure and warm in tone, and highly accomplished in technique.’ William R. Braun wrote
in Opera News that Ms. Massis ‘displays a voice that if anything becomes more beautiful the higher it goes —
and it goes very high. Massis has the Caballé-like ability to skitter over quick notes at a soft dynamic without
smudging them, and her Italian is enunciated in an attractively light, forward manner.’In recent seasons, two roles
that have become central to Ms. Massis’ repertory are the PrincesseEudoxie in Halévy’s La Juive and the
Reine Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, both of which were first sung in the Nineteenth Century by
legendary French soprano Julie Dorus Gras. Following a triumphant run of performances of La Juive, Ms. Massis
was named a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the highest civilian honor bestowed upon artists
by the French Republic. Ms. Massis’ singing is marked both by uncommon beauty and evenness of tone throughout
her extensive range, encompassing even the highest notes of the traditional coloratura soprano tessitura,
and by the emotional directness of her style of singing. She avoids over-sized dramatic gestures that in the
performances of some artists threaten to undermine even very fine vocalism, preferring to draw her interpretive
insights directly from the music. Focusing on preserving the integrity of the music great composers have given her to sing,
she gives subtle performances that often manage to be more touching than those by artists who purposefully strive
to wring the hearts of their audiences. Despite having come to singing later in life than many singers,
Ms. Massis has accomplished in a shorter time a superb career that has consistently built upon the foundation of a secure,
uncomplicated technique. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Ms. Massis’ artistry, however, is the fact that the beauty,
unaffected grace, and generosity of spirit are not merely aspects of an artistic persona but the very essence of a
phenomenal, deeply kind woman who happens to also be one of the world’s greatest singers.
Thanks to the efforts of Celestial Audio, some of Annick Massis’ most stunning live performances
are now available to the public in carefully-prepared editions, complementing her catalogue of commercial recordings.
In these releases, the work of this open-hearted artist in some of her most celebrated roles is able to reach
the hearts of those who hear these lovingly-presented recordings.