Hugues Cuénod: Immensely versatile Swiss tenor who sang at Glyndebourne for over 30 years
Thursday 23 December 2010
Few singers can boast of a career lasting more than 65 years; Hugues Cuénod was one who could, but the Swiss tenor was in every way an extraordinary artist. Fluent in six languages, he had an unusually wide range of sympathies spanning four centuries, from Dowland, Monteverdi and Bach, to Berg, Honegger and Stravinsky, encompassing every type of vocal music from café chantant to oratorio. Equally at home putting across popular songs with Jane Laquien, as the duo "Bob et Bobette", or singing Satie's Socrate in the salon of the Princesse de Polignac, he had not one but several careers, as concert singer, recitalist, musical-comedy artiste, teacher and as a superb operatic character tenor. These careers overlapped each other, but after the Second World War the character tenor became the most important and successful.
Hugues Cuénod was born near Vevey, Switzerland in 1902 and studied first at the Institut Ribaupierre in Lausanne, then at the Geneva and Basel Conservatories and lastly in Vienna. He began his career in 1928 at a Pasdeloup concert in Paris, where later that year he made his stage debut in the French premiere of Krenek's jazz opera Jonny spielt auf, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. In July 1929, as Hugh Cuenod, he played the minor role of Bertram Sellick in the first performance of Noël Coward's Bitter Sweet at His Majesty's Theatre, London; he also sang in the New York production at the Ziegfield Theater in November the same year.
After three years in Geneva, in 1933 Cuénod returned to Paris, where he met Nadia Boulanger, who was to have a great influence on his development as an artist. The tenor became a singer in her ensemble, which gave concerts in small halls, for musical circles and on the radio. He sang on the famous album of five 12-inch 78s of Monteverdi madrigals, recorded in 1937 by Boulanger's ensemble; during 1937, 1938 and 1939 he toured North America, giving recitals with three other singers and Boulanger as pianist.
When war broke out, Cuénod returned to Switzerland and taught at the Geneva Conservatory. In 1940 he took part in the first performances of Honegger's oratorio La Danse des Morts, which had a text by Claudel based on a painting by Holbein in Basel. He also sang in the premiere of Frank Martin's version of the Tristan and Isolde legend, Le Vin Herbé, at Lausanne. His first Evangelist in Bach's St Matthew Passion, which became one of his finest interpretations, dated from that time. With peace again restored, he renewed his collaboration with Boulanger, who had spent the war years in the US.
The best-known phase of Cuénod's career began on 11 September 1951, when he sang Sellem the Auctioneer in The Rake's Progress at the world premiere of Stravinsky's opera at La Fenice, Venice. Overall, the production was considered rather poor, but Cuénod received nothing but praise for both his singing and acting. In December he repeated Sellem, in Italian this time, at La Scala, Milan, where later that season he sang Valzacchi in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier (January 1952), conducted by Herbert von Karajan, and the Captain in Berg's Wozzeck (June), with Tito Gobbi in the title role.
The tenor made his Covent Garden debut in 1954 as the Astrologer in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel. Praised for the style with which he mastered the very high-lying vocal line, he was also commended for his perfect pronunciation of English. Returning to Covent Garden in 1958 as Vasek, the simple-minded suitor in The Bartered Bride, he gave an extremely funny performance, using his tall, lanky figure to great advantage – but he was unable to disguise his intelligence.
Meanwhile, Cuénod had embarked on a richly rewarding, long-term relationship with Glyndebourne. Between 1954, when he made his Sussex debut as Sellem, and 1977, when he sang the Cock in Janácek's The Cunning Little Vixen, he appeared there nearly every year in 13 roles altogether. These included Don Basilio in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, a comic performance of classic proportions; a farcical Dr Caius in Verdi's Falstaff; a very elegant Dancing Master in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos; an uproarious, drunken Lucano in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea and a surprisingly evil Monostatos in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.
Perhaps his finest Glyndebourne characterisations were Sellem in The Rake's Progress, Torquemada, the elderly clock-maker in Ravel's L'Heure espagnole, a role that enabled him to demonstrate the continuing power and clarity of his voice at 63, and Monsieur Triquet in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, where the fine line between sentiment and comedy was perfectly judged. His appearances in drag in two Cavalli operas, as Erice the Nurse in L'Ormindo and, especially, as Linfea, the elderly but amorous nymph in La Calisto, were always amusing, but never went beyond the limits of good taste.
Cuénod continued with his concert and recital work. He visited Dallas, where he made a memorable John Styx in Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld; he held study courses for singers at Snape Maltings and adjudicated singing competitions; he recorded the four buffo tenor roles in Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann, each of which was vividly differentiated; and in 1984 he returned to Glyndebourne to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his debut there by singing Don Curzio, the ineffectual lawyer in Le nozze di Figaro. In March 1987 he made a successful, if belated, Metropolitan Opera debut as the Emperor Altoum in Puccini's Turandot. By the end of that summer, after making his last appearance at Glyndebourne as Monsieur Taupe in Strauss's Capriccio, he had given 476 performances there; later the same year he made a moving Monsieur Triquet at Geneva.
This, however, was not Cuénod's farewell to the opera stage. In April 1994, aged 92, he sang – genuinely sang – the role of Monsieur Triquet in a new production of Eugene Onegin given by Lausanne Opera at the Théâtre du Jorat in Mézières, a village in the hills about 15km north of the city. At the end of the performance everyone, the audience, the other singers and the orchestra, cheered and applauded the incredible artistry of this much-loved artist for long minutes. It was a wonderful, unforgettable occasion.
He is survived by his partner, Alfred Augustin.
Hugues Adhémar Cuénod, opera singer: born Coiseaux-sur-Vevey, Switzerland 26 June 1902; 2007 civil partnership with Alfred Augustin; died Vevey, Switzerland 3 December 2010.
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