French singers are generally terribly ill-documented since almost nobody in France takes
pains to cherish their memory in any form; but Michel Béal is a special case indeed – an incredibly
mysterious tenor even for French standards. Although he was roughly a contemporary of Pavarotti, only very few facts are
known about him.
In 1960, he sang Éléazar in Constantine, Algeria, then still a French province. Some
excerpts from that performance have survived: the accompaniment is bizarre (not exactly "orchestral", more like
piano-with-string-quartet), but in the cast is no less a Brogni than Henri Médus, at the time a famous basso who
had been at the Paris Opéra until 1958.
I remember that François Nouvion said, when I asked him about Béal, that he had sung a lot in French
Algeria; whether this was knowledge, or a deduction from that Constantine Juive, I cannot say. In any case,
Béal never sang in Algiers proper (the history of the opera theater there is, unlike most other French theaters,
In July 1984, he sang Faust in Rouen... but in the 24 years in between? One French collector, who tried hard to find out
anything about Béal, posted on the internet that he found several Béal performances in Bastia (Corsica).
All in all, that seems scarce for a career of at least 24 years... but above all for a singer with such an excellent
voice and musicality. He sure has his shortcomings (his intonation is sometimes painfully poor, and the voice wasn't
likely very big), but he produces a very beautiful sound, has an extraordinary top, and a flair for the music he sings,
with a laudable (never histrionic) sense for dramatic effect. To sum it up, above all in his time, lots of
singers who were not half as good as Béal made world careers – he sang in Constantine, Bastia and Rouen...
something seems definitely wrong here. Is this an example of just how arbitrary fame in music can be, or did he not,
for whichever reason, pursue a continuous career? Or did he, after Constantine 1960, primarily sing in concerts (all
other recordings are with piano only)? A mystery.
Béal is said to have made a
noncommercial LP with Maria Lanza songs and Broadway hits (if anyone happens to own that LP, please don't hesitate to
share it with Historical Tenors!!).
Final piece of this largely incomplete puzzle: in the 1988 Bohème film whose soundtrack José Carreras
recorded before coming down with leukemia, and where young Luca Canonici acted to Carreras' singing, they introduced a
character unheard of in Puccini's opera: an innkeeper – of the inn where Marcello paints "quei guerrieri
sulla facciata" in act 3, a silent role. And that innkeeper
was played by a certain Michel Béal. Can that be "our" tenor?