Bass, C.C., G.O.Q., Dr h.c.
Internationally renowned bass Joseph Rouleau was born in 1929 in Matane, Quebec. He has received several honours over the course of his long and fruitful career. [...]
To accompany the CD album, we offer you a bonus DVD (28 minutes), on which Joseph Rouleau performs the final aria from Boris Gudonov. The title character, seeing his country descend into chaos and wracked with guilt and hallucinations, sinks into madness and dies, asking for God’s forgiveness.
Would a young Joseph Rouleau, have believed an oracle who predicted his dazzling international career or that he would become the first Canadian singer to perform behind the Iron Curtain in the former USSR? Probably not. And yet, night after night, he gave his best and so masterfully inhabited roles that seemed tailored especially to his voice. While his Mephistopheles remains required listening, and his Don Quixote was filled with vibrant passion, for many, he remains the Boris Godunov. He first performed the role during a triumphant tour of the former USSR in 1966, a performance which some critics compared with Feodor Chaliapin. (In Kazan, he even wore the costumes of the famous Russian bass, who hailed from that city.)
“During that first trip to Russia, all I knew about the country was what I had learned from its music, he recalls in his memoire À tour de rôles. The era of great composers like Borodin, and Rimski-Korsakov, that whole rich period of 19th century Russian music. … And there’s what we call the ‘Russian soul.’ You can hear it in all the great artists of that country. In the texts and in the music. The Russians are a people who have suffered, who have always been controlled, ordered, and persecuted, and it all comes out in their actions, emotions, language, poetry and, of course, their music. For example, the great composers of the 19th and 20th centuries endured intellectual oppression, so they expressed everything through their art, through music and texts imbued with emotion that spoke to the listener. It is truly moving music, and part of its beauty is that it moves everyone”.
In October 1966, only a few months after the first, Joseph Rouleau went on a second Soviet tour and gave a series of performances in Europe. He reprised his favourite role in 1968 in Bucharest and on tour with the Scottish Opera (he fondly recalls walking in Glasgow while wearing the costume from the coronation scene).
By 1972, Joseph Rouleau, at the height of his glory, was singing at London’s Covent Garden, his home base, as well as in Oxford, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Nice. But he returned to Montréal several times, notably to record an episode of Beaux dimanches, remastered for this recording, with the Radio-Canada orchestra under the baton of Jean Deslauriers, whom he had known from his early days.
Joseph Rouleau performs two selections from Borodin’s Prince Igor, another opera that was a fixture of his career, and the aria of the national hero Ivan Susanin in Glinka ’s A Life for the Tsar, a huge success when it premiered and that conferred on Glinka the title of “the first Russian composer”. He also sings the “Song of the Viking Guest” from Rimski-Korsakov’s Sadko, made famous by Chaliapin, and two selections by Tchaïkovsky: King René’s aria from Iolanta (based on a play by Henrik Hertz and set to a libretto by his brother, Modest Tchaikovsky), and Prince Gremin’s aria from Eugene Onegin, in which the retired general relates his love for his wife, Tatyana, whose heart had been broken by Onegin years earlier. Joseph Rouleau also sings (with piano accompaniment)
Dosifey’s aria from Khovanshchina, the unfinished opera by Modest Mussorgsky inspired by the Moscow rebellion of 1682, and Aleko’s cavatina from Rachmaninov’s Aleko, composed in 17 days as a graduation work, earning the young composer a rarely awarded Great Gold Medal from the Moscow Conservatory.
“I would like to have been Russian. I have always been attracted to that culture,” explains Rouleau. “And of course, my travels there informed my characters. By better understanding the Russian soul, I was better able to interpret it”.
© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen