French tenor, voice teacher, and minor composer Gilbert-Louis Duprez (1806-1896), a native of Paris, is all but unknown to today’s opera lovers. But he was a pivotal figure in the history and development of Romantic-era opera and associated vocal technique in Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century.
When he first ventured into the Parisian operatic scene in 1825, Duprez was a practitioner of the prevailing tenore altino style, wherein top-end notes were sung in an amplified falsetto (falsettone) register: for the most part, a delicate, fluty and decidedly unheroic head-voice sound that was then the norm for operatic tenors.
At first, Duprez achieved only scant success in Paris, owing largely to his comparative lack of accomplishment in the florid bel canto style of coloratura singing initially demanded for operas by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. After deciding to explore the more robust style of singing practiced in Italian opera, Duprez moved to Italy in 1828, where he sought to emulate—and build on—the more vigorous vocal qualities of the day’s leading Italian tenors. He soon developed his then-novel technique of singing notes up to and including thrilling high C’s in full, ringing “chest voice.”
Having mastered that skill and earned renown for it in Italy, Duprez returned to Paris in 1837, where his interpretations of the roles heard in this recording (and others) took the musical public by storm. As Duprez’s fame and fortune grew, he soon established a new standard in vocal technique that has since become universal practice for succeeding generations of operatic tenors.
At the time, no effective training techniques for such robust (and exhausting) vocal production existed. A tragic victim of this inadequate vocal training was a lesser-known Italian tenor, Americo Sbigoli, who dropped dead onstage during an 1831 performance of an opera by Giovanni Pacini—apparently from a tension-induced burst blood vessel in his neck while attempting a particularly resounding high note.
By the mid-to-late 1840s, Duprez’s consistent use of chest-voice high notes had seriously degraded his own vocal abilities, limiting his appearances and forcing his retirement from singing in 1851. But in his new career as a teacher, he continued to play a vital role in the development of vocal training techniques for new generations of singers.