Pol-Henri Plançon (June 12, 1851 – August 11, 1914) was a French operatic bass (basse chantante) and one of the most acclaimed singers during the 1890s and early 1900s, a period often referred to as the "Golden Age of Opera". In addition to being one of the earliest international opera stars to have made recordings, he was a versatile singer, who performed roles ranging from Sarastro in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Die Zauberflöte through to parts in several late 19th century works.
He was renowned for his exquisite legato, as well as his crisp diction, limpid tone, precise intonation, and virtuosic mastery of ornaments and fioriture. While not huge, his voice was of more than ample volume. It always moved with exemplary suppleness, allowing him to execute flawless trills and rapid scale passages with remarkable precision and suavity.
Plançon was born in Fumay
, in the Ardennes départment
of France, near the Belgian
border. "Pol" is a pet form of Paul.
He began learning to sing with the pivotal French tenor Gilbert Duprez
(the originator of the "chest voice
high C"), who had turned to teaching after his retirement from the stage. Duprez had enjoyed a distinguished career in Italy, where he created Edgardo in Donizetti
's Lucia di Lamermoor
in 1835. Plançon followed his studies with Duprez with lessons from Giovanni Sbriglia
, who taught many outstanding opera singers at his Parisian studio, most notably the brothers Jean de Reszke
and Édouard de Reszke
, with whom Plançon would sing quite often in future years.
He debuted in Lyon
in 1877 in the rôle of Saint-Bris in Meyerbeer
's Les Huguenots
and remained there until May 1879. In 1880, he took on the role of Colonna in Hippolyte Duprat's opera Petrarque
at the Théâtre de la Gaîté-Lyrique de Paris and finally received his first engagement at the Grand Opéra
in 1883, singing Méphistophélès in Charles Gounod
. He spent 10 years at the Paris Opera, participating in the premiere of Jules Massenet
's Le Cid
in 1885, in the role of Don Gormas (alongside the brothers de Reszke). Another premier that he participated in was that of Camille Saint-Saëns
on March 21
, in the role of King Francis I
. Appearing with him in Ascanio was another soon-to-be frequent partner, the American soprano Emma Eames
. Eames' rival, the great Australian soprano Nellie Melba
, also partnered him on many occasions.
Success at Covent Garden
He performed on the European scene from 1891 to 1904, most importantly at the Royal Opera House
, Covent Garden, where he participated yet again in numerous premieres, such as occurred on June 11
, when he appeared in the first staging of the The Light of Asia
, by Isidore de Lara
Other operatic first performances that he graced with is presence included: on June 20, 1894, La Navarraise, by Massenet; on June 30, 1901, the operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, by Sir Charles Stanford; in 1901, Le Roi d'Ys, by Edouard Lalo; and in 1904, Hérodiade, by Massenet. English critics were enthusiastic about his contribution to these premieres, as well as his singing in the standard repertory roles, including Rocco in Ludwig van Beethoven's Fidelio, Méphistophélès in Faust, Ramfis in Giuseppe Verdi's Aida, Pogner in Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg or Jupiter in Gounod's Philémon et Baucis. Only his portrayal of Mefistofele in the eponymous opera by Arrigo Boïto, essayed in 1895, was received with some reservations by the critics. Plançon's true home was in the bel canto bass repertory and Boïto's snarling demon seemed less suited to him than the urbane devil of Gounod's Faust.
The Metropolitan Opera Years
It was in the height of his glory at Covent Garden that Plançon was brought to the Metropolitan Opera
in New York
by the impresario Maurice Grau. He debuted there on November 29th 1893, in the role of Jupiter in Gounod's Philémon et Baucis
. All told, he appeared in the seasons of 1893-97, 1898-1901 and 1903-08. He participated in a total of 612 performances with the Met, including both operatic performances and concerts, whether in New York or in various US cities as part of the touring company's ensemble. One should take particular note of his 85 appearances as Méphistophélès in Faust
, as well as his participation in the American stage premiere of Hector Berlioz
's La Damnation de Faust
in 1906, singing the role of that other famous French Mephisto. In 1899, he appeared in the inaugural performance of Mancinelli's opera Ero e Leandro
1899 (in the role of Ariofarne).
He left the Met in 1908, following a final Plunkett in Friedrich von Flotow's Martha at the Met.
Incidentally, during the winter of 1896–1897, the Swiss-born American artist Adolfo Müller-Ury (1862-1947) had painted a portrait of him for Emma Raymond, which was subsequently exhibited in March 1897 at the Durand-Ruel Galleries in New York. It is now lost.
"The New York Critic Hunekar disliked his 'mincing gait' and complained of a 'lack of virility in his impersonations.' Whether this was fair comment or merely a Puritan critic's reaction to what was then hot gossip, is hard to know; it was widely rumoured that Plançon had been caught in his dressing room with the composer Herman Bemberg in flagrante delicto."
(Michael Scott, Record of Singing 1978, page 84).
Retirement, Death and Historical Significance
Upon his return to Paris at the age of 57, he retired from the stage although still in good voice, and gave lessons to select pupils. He was 63 years old when he died in the French capital, just before the outbreak of World War I
From a musicological standpoint, his singing is of considerable historical interest, because the refined vocal method that he employed was shaped prior to the advent of passionate, slice-of-life Verismo opera in the 1890s. (To perform the Verismo repertoire effectively, 20th Century singers were required to adopt a more forceful, 'beefier', less elegant style of operatic vocalism than had hitherto been the norm.) Indeed, Plançon is considered to be one of the last important figures in a long line of great, Romantic-era, French basses and baritones stretching back to the early 1800s. His predecessors in this grand bel canto tradition included such celebrated artists as Nicolas Levasseur, Luigi Lablache, Jean-Baptiste Faure and Jean Lassalle.
During the height of his 30-year career, he was confronted with stellar competition from a host of superlative operatic basses, including his fellow countrymen Jean-Francois Delmas, Pedro (Pierre) Gailhard, Juste Nivette, Hippolyte Belhomme and Marcel Journet. Other rivals of his included Polish-born Edouard de Reszke, Bohemian-born Wilhelm Hesch, the Italians Francesco Navarrini and Vittorio Arimondi and, from a younger generation, the Russians Lev Sibiriakov and Feodor Chaliapin and the Pole, Adamo Didur. He more than held his own in this exalted company, remaining, then as now, the paragon of sophisticated vocalism.
Pol Plançon recorded various songs and operatic arias and ensembles for the gramophone labels G&T (London, 1902-03), Zonophone (Paris, 1902), and Victor (1903-08). He also recorded four cylinders for Lieutenant Bettini's phonograph company (1897), but no trace of them has been found. Most of his surviving recordings are available on excellent CD transfers. They open a window on to a vanished realm of vocalism.
This is an alphabetical list of Pol Plançon's roles (with their respective operas and composers appended), as sources permit:
- Abimélech, in Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila
- Alvise, in Ponchielli's La Gioconda
- Ariofarne, in Macinelli's Ero e Leandro
- Astolat, in Herman Bemberg's Elaine
- Balthazar, in Gaetano Donizetti's La favorite
- Bertram, in Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable
- Capulet, in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette
- Claudius, in Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet
- Colonna, in Duprat's Petrarque
- Des Grieux (Count), in Massenet's Manon
- Duke of Alba, in Emile Paladilhe’s Patrie
- Escamillo, in Bizet's Carmen
- Francois I, in Saint-Saëns's Ascanio
- Don Gormas, in Massenet's Le Cid
- Frére Laurent, in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette
- Garrido, in Massenet's La Navarraise
- Gesler, in Gioacchino Rossini's Guillaume Tell
- Grand Inquisitor, in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine
- Heinrich (King), in Richard Wagner's Lohengrin
- Hermann, in Wagner's Tannhäuser
- High Priest, in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine
- Jupiter, in Gounod's Philémon et Baucis
- Lothario, in Thomas's Mignon
- Mefistofele, in Boïto's Mefistofele
- Méphistophélès, in Gounod's Faust
- Méphistophélès, in Berlioz's La damnation de Faust
- Oberthal (Count), in Meyerbeer's Le prophète
- Old Hebrew, in Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila
- Plunkett, in Flotow's Martha
- Pogner, in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
- Ramfis, in Giuseppe Verdi's Aida
- Rocco, in Ludwig van Beethoven's Fidelio
- Rodolfo, in Vincenzo Bellini's La Sonnambula
- Saint Bris (Count of), in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots
- Sarastro, in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.
- Warrack, John and West, Ewan (1992), The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 782 pages, ISBN 0-19-869164-5