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L’Opéra de Paris, la Comédie-Française et l’Opéra-Comique

 | 
Sabine Chaouche
, 
Denis Herlin
, 
Solveig Serre

Troisième partie. Circulation des œuvres et des artistes

Georgette Leblanc, singer, actress, « femme extraordinaire »

Gillian Opstad

Résumé

A brief account of the life of the flamboyant and controversial Georgette Leblanc (1869-1941), who, despite no formal training, began her career as an opera singer in 1893, performing in Paris and Brussels. As the mistress of Maurice Maeterlinck she was disappointed not to be the first Mélisande in Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande, but acted in and promoted many of Maeterlinck’s plays. She was the first to sing Ariane in Dukas’opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue and eventually sang Mélisande in Boston in 1912. She also starred in L’Herbier’s film, L’Inhumaine.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Gillian Opstad, Debussy’s Mélisande. The Lives of Georgette Leblanc, Mary Garden and Maggie Teyte, (...)

1Georgette Leblanc, opera singer, actress, writer, film star, features in many biographies of Debussy, but usually as little more than a footnote referring to the woman who failed to be granted the accolade of being the first to sing the role of Mélisande in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902. As the lover of Maurice Maeterlinck, author of the play, both she and he had assumed that this would be her creation. When Mary Carden was selected insread, a bitrer row ensued between composer and author1.

  • 2 Mme Gérard de Romilly, « Debussy professeur par une de ses élèves », in Cahiers Debussy, t. 2, 197 (...)

2A piano pupil of Debussy related his barbed comments about Georgette: in his opinion not only could she not sing in tune, she could not even talk in tune2! But Debussy, who often expressed contradictory opinions, perhaps was right ro be sour about her after the contretemps with Maeterlinck. Even now in Rouen, the house where she was brought up bears a plaque to her brother Maurice, author of the Arsène Lupin books, but not to her. Yet it is not hard to find many admirers of this fascinating woman from the start of her career to her death.

3The common ground in many reviews of her performances is that her interpretation is very personal and original, the word most often associated with her being «intelligent». She threw herself into her roles, interpreting them in her own way, and because this desire was linked with thoughtfulness, leading sometimes to an excess of theatricality, this word «intelligent», a quality not usually associated with a female actress, became for some not a compliment, but something to be wary of.

4Georgette Leblanc was born in Rouen on 8 February 1869. She made up many fanciful stories about her background, for she longed for romantic sounding origins, but the truth was that she was the youngest of three children of a prosperous shipowner. The death of her mother when she was sixteen meant that Georgette was left with a sad and morose widower, but he allowed her to have organ and singing lessons, and it was through her teacher, Aloys Klein, who had been organist of Rouen Cathedral, that she met Jules Massenet, who was very much impressed with her voice and encouraged her to follow singing as a career. When Georgette went to see the great actress, Sarah Bernhardt, she echoed this opinion, saying Georgette could become either a singer or an actress. But how could Georgette persuade her father to allow her to escape restrictive bourgeois Rouen for Paris and fulfil her ambition?

5Her method was drastic. She married a Spaniard, Juan Buenaventura Minuesa in 1891. The bargain was that he could receive the dowry left by her mother as long as he did not consummate the marriage. Minuesa, however, abused his wife and Georgette left him the following year. Because Minuesa was a strict Roman catholic, the couple never divorced.

  • 3 Le Figaro, 24 Nov. 1893.

6With Massenet’s encouragement Georgette attended an audition held by the director of the Opéra-Comique, Léon Carvalho, for a part in L’Attaque du moulin, by Alfred Bruneau, based on a novel by Zola. Despite her inexperience and lack of professional training, she captivated her listeners, amongst whom were both Bruneau and Zola, and as a resuit was granted the role of Françoise. On 23 November 1893 the opera opened to critical acclaim. « C’est une jeune artiste dont la voix est délicieuse et qui a de réelles qualités de cantatrice » wrote Charles Darcours in Le Figaro3. Nothing negative here.

  • 4 Quotations in Georgette’s words are from Georgette Leblanc, Souvenirs (1895-1918), Paris, 1931.

7Georgette’s striking beauty, her eccentric lavish costumes, her sheer ebullience, attracted many artists, writers and musicians to her studio in Paris, which even she called «la gare» (the station)4. One of her many admirers, the writer Camille Mauclair, fell in love with Georgette, and praised her to his Belgian friend, Maurice Maeterlinck, about whom he had written several articles. In May 1893 Mauclair had assisted the actor and producer Lugné-Poë with the original production of Maeterlinck’s play, Pelléas et Mélisande at the Bouffes-Parisiens. The following year it was to Mauclair that Maeterlinck wrote a letter, asking him to listen to the music Debussy was writing for his opera and assure him that it was good enough for the author to grant him his permission.

  • 5 «She has the nature of a true artist [...] I think that if she did anything of yours it would be t (...)

8What could be more natural than that Mauclair should tell Georgette about this project? In the autumn of 1894 he wrote to Maeterlinck telling him of his love for the woman who had been his mistress for six months, adding « elle a une nature d’artiste réelle [...] Je crois que si elle jouait une chose de toi, ce serait la Mélisande que Debussy a faite sur ton drame: ça lui conviendrait absolument »5.

  • 6 Le Figaro, 27 Nov. 1894.

9Why did Georgette not stay at the Opera-Comique in Paris? Not only was she hoping to be given the opportunity to sing Wagner at La Monnaie in Brussels, but she had formed a deep desire to meet the Belgian author, whose essays she had read and whose philosophy seemed to match hers exactly. At her audition for La Monnaie she again impressed the panel and was granted the role of Anita in La Navarraise by Massenet, for which Le Figaro praised this «vraie tragédienne lyrique»6.

10Two months later, in January 1895, Georgette was invited to a dinner in Brussels to meet the object of her admiration. She dressed up in a Mélisande-style costume and performed several of Maeterlinck’s songs set to music by Gabriel Fabre. There can be no doubt that the author was swept away by his deep feelings for this passionate, eccentric, intellectual woman. He even wrote to Mauclair telling him how much he admired her, Mauclair’s mistress. It was not long before she and Maeterlinck were expressing deep love for each other in long, eloquent letters.

  • 7 Jean Gallois, « Le Roi Arthus d’Ernest Chausson à la Monnaie », in La Monnaie symboliste, ed. Manu (...)
  • 8 New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, Departement of Manuscripts and Books, Record ID 114431.
  • 9 La Monnaie symboliste..., p. 117.

11In Brussels Georgette made a name for herself as she had in Paris, and it was not only opera directors and critics whom she impressed. When Ernest Chausson heard her sing his Légende de sainte Cécile he wanted her to sing a major role in his opera Le Roi Arthus7. Duparc dedicated to her his L’Invitation au voyage8. Vincent D’Indy was bitterly disappointed that his desire for her to create Guilhen in the Brussels première of his opera Fervaal could not be met, complaining that Massenet had travelled to Brussels especially to ensure that she should sing Thaïs and to persuade the directors of La Monnaie that she could not afford the time for Fervaal9.

  • 10 «A gypsy who had taken hashish», G. Leblanc, Souvenirs..., p. 45.
  • 11 «A blond, edgy, vibrant Carmen, of rare intensity and adaptability. She did better than act and si (...)

12Many saw Georgette as an imaginative innovator. Her Carmen with blond hair bound in gold at La Monnaie in 1895 became legendary. Georgette herself described her creation as « une gitane qui aurait pris du haschisch »10. The newspapers agreed: « une Carmen blonde, nerveuse, vivante, d’une intensité et d’une souplesse rares [...] Elle a fait mieux que le jouer et le chanter: elle l’a interpreté absolument — et remarquablement. Autour de Mme Leblanc les autres paraissent bien pales ! »11. If her voice was regarded by some as inadequate, as in Beethoven’s Fidelio, her acting ability was praised for her creation of a moving Léonore. Her Thaïs, the first to be seen in Brussels, met with great acclaim.

  • 12 «I have to tell you, you have the strange gift of creating things solely by your presence [...] th (...)

13Meanwhile she was having to come to terms with a lover, Maurice Maeterlinck, who had no understanding of music, preferred a quiet life, and who also enjoyed affaire with other women despite being devoted to her. Their love continued to grow and to be expressed in passionate, but also philosophical terms in letters. He was soon acknowledging the inspiration he received from her: « Il faut que tu le saches, tu as le don très étrange de faire naître les choses par ta seule présence [...] milles choses différentes et peut-être précises, naissent en moi que tu devais avoir semées sans le savoir »12.

  • 13 «They should have taken care to keep such an original artist in Paris», in Le Ménestrel, 31 Jan. 1 (...)
  • 14 «The winged flight of her naked arms, poses I would call musical mime except that she herself is t (...)
  • 15 L’Écho de Paris, 27 April 1897.
  • 16 «Leaning against the wall, in the shade of an orange tree in a pot brought specially from Italy, j (...)

14In 1896 Georgette’s contract at La Monnaie was not renewed, but she sang in La Navarraise in Bordeaux and Nice, and in Thaïs in Nice and Reims. « Cette artiste de tant d’originalité, qu’on eut bien fait de retenir soigneusement à Paris »13, wrote one reviewer. Meanwhile, letters continued to flow between Georgette and Maeterlinck and in 1897 she moved back to Paris where she trod a path for herself singing in special recitals, «causeries», unique and much admired by famous people, poets and musicians, such as Saint-Saëns and Stéphane Mallarmé, who wrote an article in praise of Georgette in La Revue blanche. Here he commented on the way in which she used her body as an instrument: « le vol nu de bras, des attitudes que je nommerai d’une mime musicale, sauf qu’elle même est la source lyrique et tragique »14. Willy (Henry Gauthier-Villars) wrote that he had been in the land of dreams, watching Georgette Leblanc for whom the word «eurhythmy» seemed to have been invented15. Jean Lorrain amongst others described the theatrical atmosphere of these occasions. She sang « appuyée à la muraille, à l’ombre d’un oranger en caisse rapporté d’Italie comme dans les intérieurs de Khnopff »16. She made a speciality of singing settings of Maeterlinck and the Poèmes de Jade by Judith Gautier, set to music by Gabriel Fabre. All her life, Georgette enjoyed singing and interpreting contemporary songs and poems.

15In 1898 Georgette took over the role of Fanny Legrand in Massenet’s Sapho from Emma Calvé at the Théâtre du Château d’Eau. Her talent was praised in the press and this success led to a two year contract with Albert Carré back at the Opéra-Comique. When Saint-Saëns witnessed her performance he believed he had found the ideal interpreter for his Proserpine.

16The role Albert Carré asked her to prepare initially was one in which she had previously made her mark in Brussels, but which once more she wanted to make her own. A new production of Carmen was being prepared to inaugurate the new Salle Favart on 8 December 1898. Determined to make it as authentic as possible, Carré, Georgette and Maeterlinck travelled together to Spain to collect material and ideas to update the character and the scenery. Georgette was inspired in her interpretation by «Carmen herself, the real gypsy» in Granada, a woman whose posture and gestures she was to transpose to the stage in Paris.

  • 17 «My costumes, my gestures, my walk... disconcerted the lovers of routine and enchanted everyone el (...)
  • 18 Albert Carré, Souvenirs de théâtre, Paris, 1950, p. 240.
  • 19 Le Théâtre, Febr. 1899.
  • 20 Le Ménestrel, 11 Dec. 1898.

17According to Carré, Georgette was unable to contain her enthusiasm on the first night. As ever larger than life, she claimed: «mes costumes, mes gestes, mon allure [...] déconcertaient les esprits routiniers et enchantaient les autres»17. Carré, however, wrote that her singing was inadequate and her interpretation of the role extreme. Her Carmen had been an exaggerated caricature even to the extent of throwing artificial oranges in all directions from baskets held by the chorus on stage18. On the other hand, Arsène Alexandre wrote a long and complimentary review in the journal Le Théâtre, the cover of which was adorned with a colourful picture of Georgette as Carmen19. In the very first sentence appears that word always associated with her: «l’intelligence». He appreciated her determination to break with tradition and create something new out of the role. Most significantly, he commented she would be sure to prove her ability to sing a modem role in Proserpine by Saint-Saëns or in Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy. The critic in Le Ménestrel had sonie reservations, mentioning her excess of realism, and her desire for originality, but added that as an actress she was singularly intelligent and as a singer she was helped by her rare feeling for drama, leaving nothing to be desired. «Son succès a été complet»20.

  • 21 Le Figaro, 15 May 1899; Le Ménestrel, 21 May 1899.

18Georgette daims that her subsequent dismissal from the Opéra-Comique was not because of poor performance but rather of her intransigence in refusing to grant Carré his amorous desires which was to blame both for this and ultimately for the quarrel between Maeterlinck and Debussy. It is noteworthy, however, that she did perform Carmen once more at the Opéra-Comique in May 1899, the warm welcome given her by the audience being remarked upon both by Le Figaro and Le Ménestrel21. Prior to this reappearance, she sang in concerts in Monte Carlo and in Thaïs in Montpellier.

  • 22 Revue oeolienne, May 1901.

19At the beginning of 1901 Georgette was described in a review as one of the most admirable «tragédiennes lyriques» of the day when she appeared at the Opéra-Populaire in the musical drama Charlotte Corday, composed by Alexandre Georges to a libretto by Armand Sylvestre22. Further performances of this took place in Lille and at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris.

  • 23 «We’ll see [...]», René Peter, Claude Debussy, Paris, 1944, p. 173.

201901 was a crucial year for Debussy’s opera. Maeterlinck was adamant that Georgette should create the operatic role of Mélisande. Back in 1894 he had given Debussy permission to do what he liked with the play when setting it to music, and Mauclair had suggested Georgette for the role of Mélisande even then. René Peter points out that Maeterlinck had told Debussy of his definite desire for the role of Mélisande to be sung by Georgette Leblanc, to which the composer’s reaction had been prevarication: « Nous verrons[...] »23.

  • 24 «I shall be pleased to see you again, to shake hands and talk about our Pelléas», C. Debussy, Corr (...)

21On 3 May 1901 Carré wrote to Debussy, at last confirming formally that he would mount Pelléas et Mélisande the following year, and on 30 May Maeterlinck assured the composer, « je serai heureux de vous revoir, de vous serrer la main et de parler de notre Pelléas »24. Obviously Maeterlinck must have also been determined to ensure that, despite any ruptures at the Opéra-Comique, Georgette would be given the role she had coveted for so many years.

22Indeed, Georgette was present throughout the interview when Debussy came to discuss matters with Maeterlinck. It is paradoxical that the text that inspired Debussy’s greatest work should have been written by an author who admitted having no understanding of music. Whilst Georgette listened enraptured to Debussy playing the score, Maeterlinck was half asleep in his armchair.

  • 25 «He told me that after having seen me so violent in Carmen he had at first doubted me, and that he (...)
  • 26 «“Flexible” –on the contrary, I am happy to bow to what is right and beautiful [...] to seek beyon (...)

23Naturally before Debussy left, Georgette expressed her desire to sing the role of Mélisande and Maeterlinck urged Debussy to allow her to do so. According to Georgette, Debussy said he would be delighted. However, he did not have Carrés authority to distribute the casting and even Georgette had to admit, « il me raconta que m’ayant vue si violente dans “Carmen” il m’avait d’abord redoutée et qu’il ne savait pas combien je pouvais me transformer »25. But Debussy certainly gave the impression that Georgette would sing Mélisande since they had five rehearsals together: two at Debussy’s flat and three in Georgette’s. Correspondence passed between them as Georgette tried to justify her interpretation. She begged him not to think she would perhaps not be « “souple” — je suis heureuse au contraire de me plier devant ce qui est juste et beau ». She admitted that she had a tendency to seek « au-delà de ce qui est et je m’égare parfois plus aisément que les autres »26.

  • 27 A. Carré, Souvenirs de théâtre, p. 277.

24Albert Carré stated adamantly that it had been solely Debussy’s decision to promise the role of Mélisande to Georgette. As soon as he heard of it he categorically vetoed it. Physically she did not fulfil his image of the « femme-enfant Mélisande »27. He himself extricated Debussy from his promise, insisting that it was not for personal reasons that he exerted influence on the composer. He underlined the point that this type of pressure was not in his nature. In taking full responsibility for the casting of the role, Carré made Maeterlinck, whom he insisted he admired so much, into an irreconcilable enemy. There was then a famous row with Maeterlinck during which the author referred his case to the Société des auteurs et compositeurs dramatiques. He also tried to prove that he had not intended to give Debussy carte-blanche with his play. When the Société des auteurs ruled against Maeterlinck, Debussy wrote to his friend René Peter on 27 February 1902 expressing relief that the situation had been resolved. On 13 April, however, Materlinck published a letter in Le Figaro stating categorically that Pelléas et Mélisande would be performed «in spite of me». Now that he had lost all control over it, he hoped its failure would be prompt and resounding. Sadly some saw this anger as the fault not of Maeterlinck but of Georgette Leblanc.

  • 28 Le Théâtre, July 1903.
  • 29 «She brought to the role all her delightful grace, her tender, loving charm, and at the moments of (...)

25If Georgette had sung Mélisande in 1902 she would have been very busy, for on 17 May she appeared in Lugné-Poë’s production of Maeterlinck’s play Monna Vanna at the Nouveau Théâtre. The change from singer to actress was noted by the newspapers. Praise followed her performances as she took Monna Vanna all over Europe, including London. In May 1903 Georgette’s creation of Maeterlinck’s Joyzelle at the Théâtre du Gymnase was commemorated with her picture on the front of Le Théâtre28. The intensity of her acting was commented upon, for example, in Le Figaro: « elle y a mise toute sa grâce délicieuse, son charme amoureux et attendri, avec, dans les moments de douleur, une force et des accents que nous ne lui connaissions pas »29. This play was also taken all around Europe and beyond.

26By now Maeterlinck had acknowledged that some of his ideas had been inspired by Georgette, ideas discussed in her letters to him. Indeed, Georgette herself was a writer. In 1904 she wrote a short novel Le Choix de la vie, describing the love of a passionate, articulate woman for a less sophisticated, vulnerable country girl whose sheer beauty had captivated her. This character is probably based on Georgette’s close friend and secretary, Mathilde Deschamps, who looked after the house Georgette and Maeterlinck rented in the Normandy countryside.

  • 30 «She does not only sing with her voice, but even better, with very individual intelligence and ori (...)

27Meanwhile Georgette was evolving her own style of concert performances. In 1905 she gave several series of « matinées lyriques » at the Théâtre des Capucines in Paris, then in Brussels and London. She was much admired as she read and sang settings of the poems of Maeterlinck, Baudelaire, Verlaine and others, and poems by Judith Gautier based on translations of Chínese and Japanese songs. Yet again it is her intelligence that is remarked upon: « Elle ne chante pas seulement avec une voix, mais ce qui est préférable, avec une intelligence d’art et une originalité très personnelles »30.

28At the end of 1905 Georgette directed a similar series of « matinées » at the Théâtre des Mathurins, where she also created a stir in Maeterlinck’s play, La Mort de Tintagiles, with music by Jean Nouguès. Le Figaro noted that on 4 January, many people had had to be turned away and amongst those who did manage to get tickets were many famous names. More recitals of songs and poems followed in Paris and Brussels. However, once again Mélisande remained out of reach. In Le Ménestrel and in L’Eventail it was announced in October 1906 that Mary Carden would sing Mélisande in Brussels and not Georgette. Despite letters to Debussy, she could not get her way.

  • 31 «As soon as he asked that I be given the role, he met with unyielding opposition». G. Leblanc, Sou (...)

29Meanwhile, in 1906 Dukas completed the music to Maeterlinck’s libretto Ariane et Barbe-Bleue. From April onwards Georgette typically threw herself into the role of Ariane, created by Maeterlinck specifically for her. Dukas was impressed with Georgette, but once again, a fierce battle loomed with Albert Carré at the Opéra-Comique. « Dès qu’il me demanda pour interprète, il rencontra à l’Opéra-Comique une opposition absolue »31, Georgette wrote. The director did not want Georgette to return to the fold and suggested other women, in particular his wife, Marguerite. Eventually, however, Carré had to submit and rehearsals began in February 1907. Disaster almost reigned, for Georgette became pregnant. Not surprisingly, this, combined with her travels between Paris and Grasse, where Maeterlinck had moved, made her ill and she suffered from loss of voice. No doubt Carré would have been glad of any excuse to deprive her of the role. Dukas supported her throughout, though, and the première was postponed. To cope with the situation, Georgette had to undergo an abortion.

  • 32 Le Figaro, 11 May 1907.
  • 33 «Where could we find a more perfect and seductive Ariane? [...] She is perfect in this role which (...)

30When the première took place on 10 May 1907, despite the demanding nature of the role and her precarious emotional state, Georgette acquitted herself well. Gabriel Fauré wrote a review in Le Figaro the next day in which he praised her acting and appearance but found the volume of her singing sometimes too soft, so that the audience did not catch the words32. Many critics praised Georgette’s interpretation, her beauty, her talent as an actress, for example: « Où trouver une Ariane plus parfaite et plus séduisante ? [...] Elle est parfaite dans ce rôle qui commande tout l’ouvrage et dans lequel il serait difficile de trouver sa pareil »33.

  • 34 «An interpreter for thinking writers and musicians». Gabriel Fabre, in « Georgette Leblanc », Musi (...)

31The following January, a long article about Georgette appeared in Musica written by Gabriel Fabre, the composer whose song settings she had often performed. He emphasised her intellectual capacity, her desire to base her whole art on Intelligence. However, this did not appear to be an altogether desirable quality for he drew attention to the unusual intellectual leanings of the woman above her musical ability, and to her unfeminine virile mind, a quality portrayed in her book, Le Choix de la vie, admitting that this is an attribute which men are not always able to appreciate in a woman. She was « une interprète pour littérateurs et musiciens pensants »34.

32Carré was not willing to let lus attitude to Georgette soften, nor would Georgette let herself be swept aside. Discovering that Mary Carden was about to depart for America, and still desiring the role of Mélisande, she organised a petition demanding she be offered the part, for which she claimed she gathered a thousand signatures. However, no reply was forthcoming.

33Her admirers did not desert her, however. A group of fans formed the «Knights of Ariane». She rewarded these faithful followers by giving a party in their honour at the amazing property she and Maeterlinck had moved into in 1907, the abbey of Saint-Wandrille in Normandy. Georgette’s passion for these surroundings never died. Whilst she wandered round the ruins dressed in medieval costume, Maeterlinck would roller-skate, pipe in mouth, when he was not writing, picking fruit or fishing.

  • 35 «I never imagined that she could adapt so well and so quickly to an art which I believe is new to (...)

34Her singing career still scored notable successes. She continued to give popular recitals in Paris, Nice, Brussels, Bordeaux, Rouen, in which she first talked then sang. In January 1908 the influential musician Charles Bordes invited Georgette to Montpellier specifically to perform the role of Télaïre in a revival of Rameau’s Castor et Pollux, a performance which Robert Brussel of Le Figaro found remarkable. He was amazed that she could adapt so readily to such a different style of music, creating something so beautiful: « Je n’imaginais pas qu’elle pût à ce point, et si vite, se plier à un art qui est, je crois, nouveau pour elle. Télaïre, grâce à Mme Leblanc, a été simple, touchante, émue et vraie [...] Ce fut une belle, une très belle creation »35.

  • 36 «Endless applause [...] supple, powerful and remarkably well controlled», in Le Figaro, 13 March 1 (...)
  • 37 Le Figaro, 19 Nov. 1909.

35The following year in Rouen at the Théâtre des Arts she sang the roles of Marguerite and Helen ofTroy in Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito. Again the newspapers praised fulsomely her acting and vocal talent which were greeted with « des applaudissements interminables », her voice being described as « souple et puissante et remarquablement conduit »36. Similar praise greeted her performance in Carmen in the same theatre in November 1909, where she had introduced new ideas to the card scene.37

36Meanwhile, Georgette formed an inspirational plan to use the abbey of Saint-Wandrille as a stage, seeking a play in which the tragedy would unfold in the midst of its spectacular scenery with the audience following the actors around in silence. There Macbeth was performed in August 1909 in a translation provided by Maeterlinck. The following August the audience were guided by the Knights of Ariane around the cloisters and walls of Saint-Wandrille to see Pelléas et Mélisande enacted. Fauré’s incidental music was played by a hidden orchestra conducted by Albert Wolfif, at that time chorus master at the Opéra-Comique. Georgette had been helped in her plans by the great Russian director, Stanislavski, who had corne to Saint-Wandrille for advice on his production of Maeterlinck’s play L’Oiseau bleu in Moscow. She herself travelled to Moscow to assist him in 1910, accompanied by her indispensible companion, Mathilde Deschamps.

  • 38 «Vivacity, laughter and the songs of Paris». G. Leblanc, Souvenirs..., p. 253-254.
  • 39 «The soul of the performance, providing its charm with her beautiful representation of “Light”», i (...)

37In 1911 preparations were made in order to perform L’Oiseau bleu in Paris. It was being promoted by the actress Réjane to whom Lugné-Poë had shown the manuscript, and was to receive its first performance at the Théâtre Réjane on 2 March. Georgette not only directed, but also attended to costumes and acted the key role of La Lumière. It was at these rehearsals that Maeterlinck met a young teenager, Renée Dahon, who from then on was a constant presence. At Saint-Wandrille Georgette persuaded herself that Renée brought with her « du movement, des rires et des chansons de Paris »38, all of which Maeterlinck needed as he had by now lost both parents and was often sulky and miserable. The play was a triumph, Georgette being described as « l’âme de cette réalisation, comme elle en est le charme dans sa belle personnification de « “La Lumière” »39.

38Now an opportunity arose which Georgette could not refuse. She was invited by the English impresario Henry Russell to act in Maeterlinck’s plays Pelléas et Mélisande and Monna Vanna, but above all to sing the role of Mélisande at the Boston Opera Company in the United States where Russell had been director since its opening in 1909. Russell wanted Debussy himself to conduct the opera, but he was unable to accept so it was André Capiet who came to Saint-Wandrille to rehearse the role with Georgette. On their arrival in New York, Georgette and her companions went straight away to Boston leaving the press to search in vain for Maeterlinck, who had stubbornly remained on the other side of the Atlantic with Renée. At long last, ten years after being deprived of the role in Paris, at the age of nearly forty-three, Georgette sang Mélisande at the Boston Opera House on 10 January 1912, an intensely emotional experience. She commented more fully upon this than upon acting in the play Pelléas et Mélisande, the performance of which was in French and for which she had brought with her two of her cast from Saint-Wandrille: René Maupré as Pelléas and Jean Durozat as Golaud.

39Meanwhile Maeterlinck came to worldwide attention when it was announced on 9 November 1911 that he had won the Nobel Prize for literature. He did not go to Stockholm to receive it, feigning illness, but on 8 May 1912, a grand ceremony took place at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. He was also made a « Grand Officier de l’ordre de Léopold » — and what role did Georgette play? Once again she acted Mélisande.

40By the summer of 1912 the «ménage à trois, Georgette, Maeterlinck and Renée, was becoming unbearable. Georgette’s brother Maurice was now an established author. Her older sister Jehanne lived in a medieval château at Tancarville, not far from the Abbey of Saint-Wandrille. Here Georgette developed her friendship with Marcel L’Herbier, later to become a renowned film director. A liaison with the actor Roger Karl led to her persuading Maeterlinck that Karl should act the role of Lucius Verus in his play Marie-Magdeleine which she was producing and in which she was to act the title role. This was first produced in Nice in March, then at la Monnaie in Brussels and eventually at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in May 1913.

41When war was declared in August 1914, Georgette and Maeterlinck had to evacuate Saint-Wandrille. In October they returned to Nice, accompanied inevitably by Renée. By the end of the war, Georgette’s relationship with Roger Karl had ended, and her constant companion since 1898, Mathilde Deschamps, had duped her of her money. On 15 February 1919 Maeterlinck married Renée, without even telling Georgette. They never met again. She had lost her lover of over twenty years and Saint-Wandrille, which he sold.

42Georgette then returned to Paris alone and with no money. A monthly allowance from Maeterlinck was negotiated, including the rights to his play Sœur Béatrice, which Albert Wolff set to music. However all this came to an end when Georgette went to Belgium to give a series of concert-lectures on the Belgian poets, Van Lerberghe, Verhaeren and, of course, Maeterlinck. This resulted in a letter from Maeterlinck stopping her allowance, complaining that she was exploiting his name illegally — the last letter she ever received from him.

43At this point Georgette decided to begin a new life in the United States. She travelled to New York with a new companion, Monique Serrure and there, despite difficulties with the publication of her memoirs and financial problems, she formed new friendships and made new contacts. She fell in love with Margaret Anderson, founder of the journal, The Little Review, and the trio of women, Margaret, Monique and Georgette remained inseparable until death.

44This extraordinarily indefatigable and energetic woman managed to build a career as a singer giving concerts and recitals, often with Margaret Anderson accompanying her at the piano. Their programmes lasted for two hours, consisting of contemporary works by such composers as Debussy, Milhaud, de Falla, Honegger, Stravinsky, Antheil, Satie, Poulenc, and Varèse. Georgette recited poems by Mallarmé, Baudelaire and Verhaeren. She succeeded in getting sponsorship from the francophile financier Otto Kahn and founded her own agency, Art Direction Georgette Leblanc inc. She also managed to persuade Kahn to invest in a French film in which she would star. She sailed back across the Atlantic in May 1923 to make the film L’Inhumaine, with the director Marcel L’Herbier, and co-star Jaque Catelain. This was a hugely ambitious avant-garde project for which the artist Fernand Léger and architect Mallet-Stevens, Claude Autant-Lara and Alberto Cavalcanti were the four set designers. Costumes were by Paul Poiret and the music accompanying the silent film was by Darius Milhaud.

45The film was completed in 1924 after Georgette had had to return to the States to carry out a recital tour of the south and west. Suddenly, however, the money she had been receiving from her rich financier stopped. The reason for this is not clear. She had sunk all her profits and Kahn’s money into L’Inhumaine. There was nothing left. Her last concert in New York took place at the Booth Theatre on 6 April 1924.

46On 6 May 1924 L’Inhumaine was given a private showing in Paris at the Colisée, then as part of a festival week at the Madeleine Cinéma it received a very mixed reception from both general public and critics. Lively arguments, even fights broke out. Reviewers of the film in several European cities tended either to love it or hate it.

  • 40 Georgette Leblanc, « D’Annunzio au Vittoriale: souvenirs inédits », in Les Œuvres libres, n° 203, (...)

47Before leaving New York, Georgette and Margaret had met a personality who was to have a huge influence on the rest of their lives, George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, founder of the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau near Paris, where he taught the development of a Universal Brotherhood and propounded a way of living which would help overcome the pressures of modem life. Now the three women decided to enter his priory at Fontainebleau-Avon, but at the end of that year, needing to earn money, Georgette and Margaret undertook a recital tour of Northern Italy. This was not a success and Georgette had to turn to a friend from earlier Paris days, Gabriele D’Annunzio. She later published the florid correspondence D’Annunzio sent her, accompanied by flowers and perfume40.

48Upon her return to Paris Georgette formulated a novel series of recitals called « Concerts express » in the Théâtre du Colisée. They were based on the format of cinema shows when two identical programmes of an extraordinarily varied mixture of music were presented in succession on the same day. Eventually, she and her companions moved into the lighthouse at Tancarville, above the Seine near Le Havre, the perfect environment for these exceptional women who found ordinary life so difficult to inhabit. There, between 1928 and 1930 Georgette wrote her memoirs, Souvenirs (1895-1918), to be published in 1931, but only after quarrels had been overcome between her, Maeterlinck and Bernard Grasset, her publisher. Maeterlinck completely rejected any notion Georgette had propounded that the ideas which inspired his books Le Trésor des humbles and La Sagesse et la Destinée might have had their source in her.

49Georgette commenced the second volume of her memoirs, La Machine à courage, in 1931, but soon illness began to take its toll. The declaration of war in 1939 coincided with an operation for breast cancer. Eventually the three women moved to Le Cannet near Cannes where Georgette’s memoirs were completed. After a failed attempt to travel to the United States this was where Georgette died on 26 October 1941. Georgette, Margaret and Monique remained inseparable even in death, for in due course Monique and Margaret were both buried next to Georgette, beneath the same tombstone.

  • 41 Legendary Piano Recordings, Marston, 2008, 52054-2.
  • 42 Opera.be: The Yves Becko Collection, Bruxelles, 2006, CD2, track 8.
  • 43 CD included with the book Divas by André Tubeuf, Paris, 2005.

50There are very few surviving recordings of Georgette’s voice so it is difficult to make an objective judgement of its quality. Those that have been transferred to CD are the aria Pendant un an je fus ta femme from Sapho with Massenet at the piano, recorded in 1903 for Gramophone and Typewriter41, L’Amour est une vertu rare, an aria from Thaïs by Massenet42, and Bois épais from Amadis de Gaule by Lully43, both the latter having been recorded in 1912 by Columbia with orchestral accompaniment. Despite the inevitable hiss and crackle, one hears a strong tone throughout the range, clear intelligible diction and certain warmth in the production, particularly in L’Amour est une vertu rare. There is more portamento than would be usual today, but she sings with a generous expressivity. What we do know from many descriptions of Georgette’s performances is that she sang with much physical movement, particularly of the arms. No doubt it was her acting ability just as much as her voice that attracted Massenet to her and led him to give her such encouragement.

51Although this vigorous, intellectual woman also wrote several books and many articles, this brief summary of the life of Georgette Leblanc has necessarily concentrated on her singing and her acting. I am pleased to show that this often maligned woman had much to offer the world of music and drama.

Notes

1 Gillian Opstad, Debussy’s Mélisande. The Lives of Georgette Leblanc, Mary Garden and Maggie Teyte, Woodbridge, 2009.

2 Mme Gérard de Romilly, « Debussy professeur par une de ses élèves », in Cahiers Debussy, t. 2, 1978, p. 7.

3 Le Figaro, 24 Nov. 1893.

4 Quotations in Georgette’s words are from Georgette Leblanc, Souvenirs (1895-1918), Paris, 1931.

5 «She has the nature of a true artist [...] I think that if she did anything of yours it would be the Mélisande which Debussy has composed to your play. That would suit her perfectly». Claude Debussy, Correspondance (1872-1918), ed. François Lesure and Denis Herlin, Paris, 2005, p. 633.

6 Le Figaro, 27 Nov. 1894.

7 Jean Gallois, « Le Roi Arthus d’Ernest Chausson à la Monnaie », in La Monnaie symboliste, ed. Manuel Couvreur and Roland van der Hoeven, Brussels, 2003, p. 148.

8 New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, Departement of Manuscripts and Books, Record ID 114431.

9 La Monnaie symboliste..., p. 117.

10 «A gypsy who had taken hashish», G. Leblanc, Souvenirs..., p. 45.

11 «A blond, edgy, vibrant Carmen, of rare intensity and adaptability. She did better than act and sing. Her interpretation was totally convincing and remarkable. Next to Mme Leblanc the rest fade into insignificance», in Le Ménestrel, 23 Mar. 1895.

12 «I have to tell you, you have the strange gift of creating things solely by your presence [...] thousands of different, even specific things are born in me which you must have sown without realising it», 14 April 1895, Stadsarchief Gent, B LXIII.l.

13 «They should have taken care to keep such an original artist in Paris», in Le Ménestrel, 31 Jan. 1897.

14 «The winged flight of her naked arms, poses I would call musical mime except that she herself is the source of the music and tragedy», in La Revue blanche, 1st March 1898.

15 L’Écho de Paris, 27 April 1897.

16 «Leaning against the wall, in the shade of an orange tree in a pot brought specially from Italy, just as in one of Khnopff’s interiors». Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, «Un Symboliste oublié: Gabriel Fabre (1858-1921)», in Revue de musicologie, t. 90, 2004, p. 91.

17 «My costumes, my gestures, my walk... disconcerted the lovers of routine and enchanted everyone else». G. Leblanc, Souvenirs..., p. 164.

18 Albert Carré, Souvenirs de théâtre, Paris, 1950, p. 240.

19 Le Théâtre, Febr. 1899.

20 Le Ménestrel, 11 Dec. 1898.

21 Le Figaro, 15 May 1899; Le Ménestrel, 21 May 1899.

22 Revue oeolienne, May 1901.

23 «We’ll see [...]», René Peter, Claude Debussy, Paris, 1944, p. 173.

24 «I shall be pleased to see you again, to shake hands and talk about our Pelléas», C. Debussy, Correspondance..., p. 633.

25 «He told me that after having seen me so violent in Carmen he had at first doubted me, and that he had not known to what an extent I could adapt myself». G. Leblanc, Souvenirs..., p. 169.

26 «“Flexible” –on the contrary, I am happy to bow to what is right and beautiful [...] to seek beyond what is and sometimes to go astray more easily than others». Claude Debussy. Correspondance..., p. 633.

27 A. Carré, Souvenirs de théâtre, p. 277.

28 Le Théâtre, July 1903.

29 «She brought to the role all her delightful grace, her tender, loving charm, and at the moments of greatest sadness, a strength and tone which we had not seen from her before», in Le Figaro, 21 May 1903.

30 «She does not only sing with her voice, but even better, with very individual intelligence and originality», in Le Ménestrel, 12 Febr. 1903.

31 «As soon as he asked that I be given the role, he met with unyielding opposition». G. Leblanc, Souvenirs..., p. 170.

32 Le Figaro, 11 May 1907.

33 «Where could we find a more perfect and seductive Ariane? [...] She is perfect in this role which dominates the work. It would be difficult to find anyone to match her». Le Ménestrel, 18 May 1907.

34 «An interpreter for thinking writers and musicians». Gabriel Fabre, in « Georgette Leblanc », Musica, Jan. 1908, p. 8.

35 «I never imagined that she could adapt so well and so quickly to an art which I believe is new to her. Thanks to Mme Leblanc, Télaïre was simple, moving, tender and genuine [...] This was a beautiful, a very beautiful creation of the role». Le Figaro, 27 Jan. 1908.

36 «Endless applause [...] supple, powerful and remarkably well controlled», in Le Figaro, 13 March 1909.

37 Le Figaro, 19 Nov. 1909.

38 «Vivacity, laughter and the songs of Paris». G. Leblanc, Souvenirs..., p. 253-254.

39 «The soul of the performance, providing its charm with her beautiful representation of “Light”», in Le Ménestrel, 17 Mar. 1911.

40 Georgette Leblanc, « D’Annunzio au Vittoriale: souvenirs inédits », in Les Œuvres libres, n° 203, May 1938.

41 Legendary Piano Recordings, Marston, 2008, 52054-2.

42 Opera.be: The Yves Becko Collection, Bruxelles, 2006, CD2, track 8.

43 CD included with the book Divas by André Tubeuf, Paris, 2005.

Auteur

Bristol

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