12 September 2007

Gabriel Bacquier

At play in the fields of the Lord: Bacquier in Canari
Photo by Rita Scaglia, 2006.
Used with permission

At 84, Gabriel Bacquier, the veteran French baritone, may be the world’s oldest 14-year-old. It’s impossible to convey in mere words the force of his vitality, his naughty sense of humor, his roguish charm, the sheer fun of him, all the more startling when coupled with the exquisite taste and exacting standards of one of the world’s great singers. Yet I’ve tried to describe him, notably in an article for Opera News that appeared in July of this year. (That article appears in a subscriber-only portion of the magazine’s website, so I can’t provide a link.) Meeting him again at the Festival du Chant Lyrique du Cap Corse, one year after our first encounter, I am more than ever smitten with him — casting aside Dan Rather’s oft-repeated warning that a journalist should never fall in love with a story. But I neither apologize for nor regret my surrender. A combination of Falstaff and Father Christmas, he is quite simply irresistible.

The Festival alternates between a series of master classes one year and a vocal competition the next. The master classes found Bacquier at his exuberant best, in full command not only of his own vast repertoire but everyone else’s too. He knew all the lyrics by heart, and he seldom checked a single note in the score: on those rare occasions, his recollection was proven invariably correct. Very often he’d demonstrate bits of musical or theatrical interpretation, even of roles he never played. Although he insists he’s retired, I’d hire him in a minute for Leporello — or Pinkerton, or (most especially) Despina. His patience with even the least promising singers was boundless, and, as I wrote in my article, he engaged constantly with the audience. Between numbers, he regaled us with anecdotes and bawdy cabaret numbers, the best of which was a meditation on the differing qualities of his mistresses’ pubic hair.

Many retired singers live like Miss Havisham, obsessed with the past, pouncing on visitors to relive dusty triumphs. Their conversation, like their memoirs, takes on a “And then I sang” quality that, so far from justifying our interest in them, seems desperate and sad. “Don’t forget me” is the subtext. There’s none of that with Bacquier. He’s thrilled to have an audience — even nominal retirement can’t change the spots of this theater animal — but it’s not about gratifying his own needs. Entertaining is something Bacquier does for us, not for himself, and he lives entirely in the present. He’s abetted in this by his wife, the soprano and teacher Michèle Command, and by his zesty appetite for life: art, music, food, wine, conversation, flirting with pretty women.

Egalement irrésistible: Michèle Command

The competition obliged Bacquier to take a more sedate role, presiding over the jury at a long table. Even so, he pulled singers aside to coach them. This isn’t kosher at most competitions, because it makes objective judging all the more difficult, as Mme Command tartly observed. But “c’est plus fort que moi,” Bacquier told me.

He pronounced himself pleased with my article, and he repeated that “The Americans must have loved reading it,” because “there was so much sentimental stuff.” I take it that a French writer would not have discussed his affair with Mme Command and its effect on his career, bringing him back to France at the moment his managers wanted to make a worldwide star of him, a French Pavarotti. But all I did was repeat the story he told me, and I wonder how anybody could have done it differently. The French, they are a funny race of music writers, but surely they know a good story when they hear it.

He recorded extensively, and he sings on several of the first albums I ever owned. Most of these are on vinyl, and in storage in Connecticut, so I seized the opportunity to buy a few CDs here in France and acquaint myself further with his work. What’s most striking is the naturalness of his delivery, as if he were speaking a role in the theater. He studied acting under the great Louis Jouvet (“Bizarre, bizarre”) at the Conservatoire de Paris. (Jouvet never took him seriously, because he was a voice student, Bacquier recalls, and he used to drive the singers crazy by pretending to pick his nose, then wiping his finger on the piano keyboard. It's not hard to imagine Bacquier doing the same.) But he says the breakthrough in his interpretation came with two operatic roles, Don Giovanni and Golaud in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. He realized that the real meat of the music lay not in big arias — Giovanni has only a couple, Golaud none — but in Mozart’s recitative and Debussy’s quasi-parlando ruminations. The next discovery was that every role, in every opera, and every French mélodie contained comparable material.

Thus even when he’s singing a big aria, when he’s hitting a money note or executing some elaborate phrase, you hardly notice, so caught up are you in the detailed psychological portrait he draws. No matter how booming the passage, there’s an interior stillness in his voice. His respect for text illuminates every note, and he insists that it’s easier to hit a note if you pronounce the text properly. “The composers knew what they were doing,” he told me, “and they wouldn’t have written the same music to different words. They chose these texts to express their musical ideas.”

I regret that the only role I ever saw him play was Don Pasquale, because his Giovanni, his Leporello, his Golaud and his Falstaff, his Iago and his Scarpia must have been astonishing onstage. (Bits of his Count Almaviva and his Spalanzani show up on YouTube.) His repertory was so vast, from Mozart to Mussorgsky to Charles Trenet, that you’d have to staple yourself to him to see Bacquier in all his facets. But they’re all still with him, not dusty souvenirs but living aspects of his personality. Much of the pleasure of meeting him is like the pleasure of meeting Anna Russell: the artist I admired in my boyhood is still very much present and active.

Though he was born in Béziers and lives near Paris, Corsica seems like the right place for him, and the island’s raw beauty, its extravagant colors, vertiginous contours and bracing air find their match in him.

When Gaby met Billy: Reunited in Corsica

He has begun to call me Billy. In my life, only two other people have gotten away with that. The first was my aunt, Kay Crabb, who died in a plane crash when I was 16, and the nickname pretty much died with her. But once Fredd Tree, like the Mikado, has made up his mind to do a thing, it is done, and he calls me Billy, too. So it’s a select group, the Billy Trio, three people as different from one another as possible in every respect except my affection for them. I daresay they are unaware of one another’s existence, and they wouldn’t quite know what to make of one another if they ever met. Yet they might be pleased by the company, after all, and I have been uplifted by theirs.