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Soprano Régine Crespin, One of France's Great Voices, Dies at 80

By Matthew Westphal
05 Jul 2007

Régine Crespin

Régine Crespin, a dramatic soprano who became one of the most acclaimed singers France produced in the 20th century, died today in a Paris hospital at age 80. Her longtime record label, EMI, revealed the news; her personal secretary, Mireille Gaucher, told The New York Times that the cause of death was liver cancer.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy paid tribute to the late singer today: "Through her voice and her talent but also through her humor and her generosity, Régine Crespin was a great ambassador for French culture. She leaves us today but we will always remember her enduring performances."

Born in 1927 in Marseilles, Crespin grew up in Nîmes and had planned to be a pharmacist, according to France 2. She won a vocal contest in her mid-teens and went on to study at the Conservatoire de Paris, where she took three prizes.

She made her professional debut 1948 as Charlotte in Massenet's Werther. By 1950 she was singing Wagner: she took the role of Elsa in Lohengrin in the city of Mulhouse. In 1951 she made her Paris debut at the Opéra-Comique; the following year she appeared at the Paris Opéra for the first time; her roles were Marguérite in Gounod's Faust and Tosca. Soon after, she sang her first Marschallin in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, a role that would become one of her most celebrated, and in which she made her Vienna State Opera and Glyndebourne debuts in 1959.

This variety points up a key aspect of Crespin's career: she regularly performed in the German and Italian standard repertoire alongside her work in French opera. (She was renowned for her acting skills, and her diction, in all three languages.) In her memoirs she observed proudly that she sang German roles in Bayreuth and Vienna and Italian roles at La Scala, while (for instance) Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Renata Tebaldi never sang in French at the Paris Opéra.

Other Italian parts for which Crespin was known, in addition to Tosca, were Desdemona in Verdi's Otello and Amelia in the same composer's Un ballo in maschera. Other prominent Wagner roles she sang included Kundry in Parsifal (with which she made her Bayreuth debut in 1958) and Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. In the French repertoire she was noted, in addition to Charlotte and Marguérite, for Cassandre and Didon in Berlioz's Les Troyens.

One opera with which she is indelibly associated is Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites. She sang the role of the New Prioress in the French premiere of the work in 1957; 30 years later, she played the Old Prioress — in English — in the Metropolitan Opera's televised production which also starred Maria Ewing, Florence Quivar and Jessye Norman.

During the 1970s Crespin gradually gave up the soprano repertoire and moved into mezzo roles; she sang her first Carmen in Miami in 1972.

In 1989 she undertook an international farewell tour and gave her final stage performance at the Palais Garnier.

Among Crespin's important recordings are the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier (with Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic), Berlioz's Les Nuits d'été and Ravel's Shéhérazade (with Ernst Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande), and two different roles in Wagner's Die Walküre: Sieglinde (with Solti and the Vienna) and Brünnhilde (with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic).

In later life she was a widely respected teacher: She was on the faculty of the Paris Conservatoire from 1976 to 1992 and gave master classes across the world. She was named a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government, and a special hybrid rose was created in her honor in 1990.




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