Henri Legay (1920-92) was a French tenor whose career was mostly based in Paris. For a while he supported himself singing while accompanying himself with a guitar at Parisian cabarets. He composed some of the songs he sang. He also played for Edith Piaf and Ives Montand. in 1947 he received a first prize from the Paris Conservatory. At first he sang operetta. His debut in opera was in Brussels in 1950. His Paris debut in 1952 was at the Opéra-Comique as Gerald in Delibes Lakme. He also appeared at the Palais Garnier.
While he had some Italian roles in his repertoire – ie, Almaviva in The Barber and Alfredo in Traviata – he was best known for French opera. His strength was in the lyrical tenor roles that were perfectly suited to his light, but exquisitely formed, tenor voice. His singing represents a style that has essentially disappeared, but which was exemplified by Alain Vanzo, Leopold Simoneau, and most notably by Legay himself. Beauty of tone, elegance of phrasing, and lyrical nuance were the kernel of his art. Outside of France, Legay is best known for his portrayal of Des Grieux in the 1955 recording of Massenet’s Manon led by Pierre Monteux and featuring Victoria De Los Angeles in the title role. After 65 years, this is still the definitive recording of Massenet’s masterpiece.
I’ll start with the tenor’s two arias from Manon. These two will show both Legay’s strength and his limitations. Le Rêve is sung at the end of Act 2. Legay’s singing is perfection. His melting piano high notes, filatura, diminuendi, and clear diction are the gold standard for this quintessential Belle Époque aria. Ah, fuyez douce image from the Saint-Sulpice scene of Act 3 is a different matter. Legay is very close to the microphone and does a fine job, but I suppose that the aria would be more of a challenge in a live performance. This piece requires forceful declamation and forte singing. Indeed, the whole scene does not play to his strengths. Both selections are taken from the complete 1995 recording.
La dame blanche is an opéra comique by François-Adrien Boieldieu. First performed in 1825.It is mostly remembered for its tenor aria Viens, gentille dame. Legay’s version of the aria goes to the top of the list because of the elegance of both is phrasing and his French.
Adolphe Adam’s Le Postillon de Lonjumeau was first performed in 1836 at the Opéra-Comique. After some initial success it disappeared from Paris for 125 years until it was revived for Michael Spyres in 2019 at the same theater where it was first performed. The tenor aria Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire is frequently done at recitals and on records. It requires a high D at the end. Legay’s reading is likely the most stylish you’ll ever hear. The high D is brilliantly executed.
Édouard Lalo is best known for his violin concerto Symphonie espagnole. His opera Le Roi d’Ys is based on a Breton legend. It reached The Met in 1922, 34 years after its premiere. Despite the presence of Rosa Ponselle and Beniamino Gigli it only lasted 6 performances. It’s Act 3 aubade for tenor – Vainement, ma bien-aimée – is frequently done as a recital piece. If you’ve heard Italian tenors sing this piece, Legay’s idiomatic singing makes the aria sound as from a different world.
Finally, the two best known excerpts from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. Both are from Act 1. The ubiquitous Pearl Fishers’ Duet – Au fond du temple saint – is from a complete recording of the opera made in 1954 under the direction of André Cluytens. The renowned French baritone Michel Dens joins Legay in the duet. Je crois entendre encore is sung by any tenor worth his high notes irrespective of style. In Legay’s voice the great tune is draped in style, all the folds of which are authentic. Note that he sings the piece as written, no repeat of the final phrase. The way he does it the repeat is neither missed nor needed.
Legay is perhaps the foremost exemplar of a fach that is gone, likely forever. He’s mostly forgotten; in the English speaking world he was never a major player to begin with. Nevertheless, his recordings, though not abundant, are a treasure.