Robert Savoie

Baritone praised for his diction

Thursday 20 October 2011 13:38

Robert Savoie, opera and concert singer: born Montreal, Quebec 21 April 1927; twice married; died Montreal 14 September 2007.

The baritone Robert Savoie had a successful career as an opera and concert singer in Europe and North America as well as in his native Canada. His voice, light and lyrical at the beginning of his career, developed strength and resonance as he grew older, but while singing some of Verdi's heavier baritone roles, he never lost the ability to spin out his French repertory in perfect style.

He spent four seasons at Covent Garden, sang with Scottish Opera and Sadler's Wells (now English National) Opera, as well as several French regional companies. The final years of his singing career were spent at Opéra du Québec; later he formed a lobby group with his fellow French-Canadians, the tenor André Turp and the bass Joseph Rouleau, which resulted in the formation of the Opéra de Montréal.

Savoie was born in Montreal in 1927. At first he studied chemistry, but soon changed to singing and studied for five years with the Canadian soprano Pauline Donalda. She ran the semi-professional Opera Guild of Montreal, and Savoie made his stage début in 1948 as the Second Philistine in Samson et Dalila with the Guild, for whom he sang many more small roles. Then in 1952 he went to Milan to study further with Antonio Narducci. He made his fully professional début in 1953 as Scarpia in Tosca at the Teatro Nuovo in Milan, after which he sang in various Italian and French regional theatres as well as in Canada. In 1961 he was engaged by the Covent Garden Opera Company (as it then was called), making his début as Schaunard in La Bohème.

During his four seasons at Covent Garden, Savoie sang a wide variety of roles. These included, in the Italian repertory, Alfio in Cavalleria rusticana, Tonio in Pagliacci, Sharpless in Madama Butterfly, Amonasro in Aida, Fra Melitone in La forza del destino and one performance of Rigoletto. His French roles included Thoas in Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, Don Inigo Gomez in Ravel's L'Heure espagnole and Lescaut in Massenet's Manon. He also dipped a toe into the heavy Wagnerian style with Nachtigall in Die Meistersinger and a Noble of Brabant in Lohengrin, while I remember a splendid Police Inspector in Shostakovich's Katerina Ismailova.

Savoie sang with Scottish Opera from 1965 to 1967, first as a very sympathetic Sharpless, then as a last-minute replacement for Geraint Evans in the title role of Falstaff – his usual role in Verdi's opera was Ford – finally as Valentin in Gounod's Faust and Marcello in La Bohème. For Sadler's Wells he sang Don Inigo Gomez and Tomsky in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades; he was praised for his performance of Tomsky, in particular for his diction – the opera was sung in English. Meanwhile in 1966 he sang Iago in Verdi's Otello at Toulouse and later the same year, Rigoletto in Montreal. They were roles he was now fully equipped vocally to tackle.

In the following years, however, Savoie reverted to the French repertory, singing Valenin in Montreal and Bordeaux; Lescaut in Marseilles and Vancouver; Albert in Massenet's Werther in Rio de Janeiro; and Sancho Panza in Massenet's Don Quichotte in Marseilles. In 1970 he acquired a new Verdi role, Renato in Un ballo in maschera, which he sang at Strasbourg, followed by Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte. Also in 1970 he returned to Montreal to take part in the final performance of the Opera Guild, which closed down after Donalda's death that year. He sang Figaro in The Barber of Seville, a role that had won him an Emmy five years earlier for his performance on Radio-Canada.

Savoie took part in several concert performances in 1972 of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust (in which he sang Brander) given by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti, first in Chicago, then at Carnegie Hall in New York. The following year he sang the Marquis de Posa in Don Carlos for the BBC.

The baritone spent the rest of his singing career in Canada, retiring in 1981. He then joined with his colleagues André Turp and Joseph Rouleau in successfully lobbying for the creation of the Opéra de Montréal. He also taught singing at McGill University.

Elizabeth Forbes

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