Remembering Mady Mesplé – France’s “Madame Opérette”

Kurt Gänzl
Operetta Research Center
31 May, 2020

I heard yesterday that Mady Mesplé had died. I have to admit that, to me, she belonged to a past generation. My generation. Although I never saw her on stage. At my local theatres near Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the best we mustered was Nicole Broissin. But we ‘knew’ Mlle Mesplé thoroughly through her recordings of, mainly, opérette. I listened to, and reviewed, every single one she ever made, 30 years ago, when I was writing my Musical Theatre on Record. I see she has no less than eleven entries in my index.

The French soprano Mady Mesplé in 1975. (Photo: Archives municipales de Toulouse)

The French soprano Mady Mesplé in 1975. (Photo: Archives municipales de Toulouse)

There is absolutely no doubt that the lady was a fine singer. She was, thanks to EMI, more or less ‘Madame Opérette’ in France in her time. A rather ladylike Madame Opérette, I feel … on the cusp between opera and opérette.

I always felt that I would like her best in Lakmé or as Filina in Mignon. I see that, in my book, I dismiss her Orphée, speak of her ‘usual sharply sweet’ performance as Wanda in La Grande-Duchesse, and comment of her Gabrielle in La vie parisienne that she ‘skips predictably charmingly’ through the music.

‘She has the right innocent glitters’ for Pomme d’api, is a ‘crisp, attractive Germaine’ in Les Cloches de Corneville, and I refer to her Marie in Les Mousquetaires au couvent as ‘her usual effectively unsoppy ingenue self’. I liked her much better in the politer Véronique, ‘one of her best recorded performances’, and in Ciboulette.

So attractive, accurate, well-tailored … but somehow I don’t play those recordings. I inevitably turn back to Pathé’s vast and glorious set of earlier years, and revel in the characterful and effortless singing of Liliane Berton, or to someone a little spunky and closer in time, such as Suzy Delair.

I know, comparisons are odiferous. But to compare, and to rate, was exactly what I was hired to do back then in Musical Theatre on Record. And I have rather specific tastes in opérettic leading ladies.

Cover of Kurt Gänzl's "The Blackwell Guide to the Musical Theatre on Record," first published in 1990.

Cover of Kurt Gänzl’s “The Blackwell Guide to the Musical Theatre on Record,” first published in 1990.

I do not go for La Crespin or La Norman in Offenbach, anymore than I do for Kiri te Kanawa in West Side Story. I adore Gertrude Grob Prandl’s ‘Ocean thou mighty monster’ more than perhaps any piece of recorded music. But I would not want to hear her as Rosalinde or Giuditta. Mady Mesplé was just on the right side of the ‘opérette’ divide, but …

I have been asked by the Operetta Research Center to compare her with central Europe’s Anneliese Rothenberger and Australia’s June Bronhill. More comparing!

Miss Rothenberger was an absolutely gloriously memorable Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier; her operetta recordings are impeccable, but handicapped these days for me (I know it’s dumb) by visions of her on latter day TV, past her best, with that awful, plastic hairdo. She belongs, with Mady, on the cusp of opera and operette. Some will love it and … oh, damme! how can you not love it!

June (whom I did see on-stage and also off-stage) was something else. For me, in my generation, the perfect light opera/operetta singer. In some pretty iffy English translations! From a prefect Eurydice in Orphée aux enfers to the dazzling Elizabeth of Robert and Elizabeth … I don’t think Mlle Mesplé and Frl. Rothenberger would have starred in a commercial musical!

But back to Mady. There is nothing to be antipathetic about in her recordings. They are wholly efficient. If rather predictable. And I guess it was EMI’s fault that she didn’t get outside the basic repertoire.

Her Véronique is always worth a listen … so let’s take Mado Robin and Liliane Berton off the turntable and put it on and remember Mlle Mesplé!

Mady Mesplé died on 30 May, 2020, in her hometown Toulouse at the age of 89. She retired from the stage in 1985, in the mid-1990s she was diagnosed with Parkinson. In cooperation with Association France Parkinson she wrote her autobiography La voix du corp.