Excerpts from operas by Wagner (Lohengrin, Die Walküre. Rienzi, and G–tterd”mmerung), Meyerbeer (Le ProphËte), Verdi (Aida and Otello), Mozart (Die Zauberfl–te), HalÈvy (La Juive), Bizet (Carmen), Weber (Euryanthe), Leoncavallo (I Pagliacci), and D'Albert (Tiefland) (all sung in German).
Jacques Urlus, tenor, Melanie Kurt, soprano/various orch & cond.
Preiser 89502 (F) (AAD)  TT: 76:50

Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973) remains unique in the history of Wagnerian singing. The Danish tenor possessed all of the attributes necessary to surmount, in glorious fashion, the challenges posed by such roles as Tannh”user, Lohengrin, Tristan, Siegmund, the youthful and adult Siegfried, and Parsifal.  Melchior possessed a gloriously rich tenor voice, seamless from its baritonal lower register to a gleaming top. His stamina was legendary, his diction and legato beyond reproach. All of these attributes were employed by a singer who possessed a keen sense of musicality and dramatic nuance. As a result, Melchior's recordings continue to provide the standard by which all other Heldentenors are judged.

But before Lauritz Melchior, there was Jacques Urlus (1867-1935). And if Melchior had never graced the operatic stage, it is Urlus who might well be considered King of the Heldentenors.

Born of Dutch parents in Aachen, Urlus made his debut as Beppe in I Pagliacci in 1894. By 1900, Urlus established himself as the leading heroic tenor at the Opera House in Leipzig. Performances in Berlin, Vienna, Munich, London, and Bayreuth solidified Urlus's status as one of the preeminent artists of his day. Jacques Urlus made his Metropolitan Opera debut, as Wagner's Tristan, on February 8, 1913. He appeared regularly at the Met between 1913 and 1917, performing Wagnerian roles, as well as Tamino in Mozart's Die Zauberfl–te, and Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio.

In addition to his operatic portrayals, Urlus was celebrated for his interpretations of the Evangelist in Bach's St. Matthew Passion, as well as the tenor parts in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the Verdi Requiem, and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. It was a 1934 Amsterdam presentation of Mahler's Das Lied that served as Urlus's final performance. He died on June 6, 1935 at the age of 68, celebrated by the Dutch people as a national hero.

A Preiser issue affords us the opportunity to sample this superb artist. The disc contains twenty selections, eighteen of which are from the years 1907-1912. Two excerpts from G–tterd”mmerung and Lohengrin, recorded in December of 1924, complete the disc. Those latter recordings, made when Urlus was 57, document a singer still at the height of his powers.

The disc begins with Lohengrin's entrance, "Nun sei bedankt." The timbre of the voice in the opening lines seems remarkably similar to Melchior's. But it soon becomes clear that Urlus possessed a voice that was very much his own. The quality of the voice is hauntingly beautiful, certainly one of the most attractive of any tenor who has sung the Wagnerian repertoire. Urlus's voice does not possess Melchior's baritonal quality, although the lower tessitura poses no difficulties for him.

It is also clear that Urlus was an interpretive artist of the highest rank. Listen, for example, to the way he so tellingly projects the anguish of Siegmund, or of the dying Siegfried. That kind of dramatic intensity also serves Urlus well in non-Wagnerian repertoire, including compelling renditions of ElÈazar's "Rachel, quand du seigneur," the Nile Scene from Aida (with Melanie Kurt), Otello's death, and Canio's outburst in the final portion of I Pagliacci.

One cannot help but marvel at the technical mastery of this singer. How many Heldentenors would be able to negotiate Tamino's portrait aria with the elegance and refinement that Urlus brings in his classic 1911 recording? Urlus also manages lovely piano shading for the B-flats that conclude Don JosÈ's "Flower Song" and RadamËs's "Celeste Aida."

Urlus's vocalism provides almost an embarrassment of riches. Suffice it to say that this disc provides wonderful documentation of a superlative artist. As John Steane wrote in his marvelous "The Grand Tradition," Jacques Urlus "must have been one of the best singers the (20th) century has known." If John Steane ever wanted to advance that argument in court, the excerpts on this Preiser CD, excellently transferred, might serve as Exhibit A.

K.M. (Dec. 2000)