Leo Slezak 1873-1946

Leo Slezak fut un ténor lyrique et dramatique d’origine austro-hongroise qui s’est particulièrement illustré dans les rôles wagnériens et dans celui d’Otello.

Né à Šumperk (Mährisch-Schönberg), fils d’un meunier, Slezak a travaillé brièvement comme forgeron, monteur d’ingénieur et a servi dans l’armée avant de prendre des cours de chant avec le baryton et pédagogue Adolf Robinson. 

Il fit ses débuts en 1896 à Brno (Brünn), aujourd’hui en République tchèque, avec le rôle de Lohengrin et commença à chanter des premiers rôles en Bohême et en Allemagne, à Breslau et, en 1898-99, à Berlin encore dans Lohengrin. En 1901, son ascension commença alors qu’il attira l’attention de Gustav Mahler, qui l’invita à rejoindre l’Opéra d’État de Vienne. Il y fit ses débuts en tant qu’Arnold dans le Guillaume Tell de Rossini, commençant une association de 32 ans avec cette maison. À partir de 1901, il était membre permanent de la liste d’artistes de l’Opéra d’État de Vienne, obtenant le statut de star. Il s’y est produit plus de 900 fois. En 1907, cependant, lorsque Mahler est parti, Slezak quitta également Vienne pour poursuivre une carrière internationale. Cette carrière commença à Londres au Royal Opera House de Covent Garden, où il chanta Siegfried (un rôle trop lourd pour lui qu’il supprimera bientôt de son répertoire) et Lohengrin en 1900. Vers 1908, à Paris, il étudia le répertoire lyrique français avec le grand ténor Jean de Reszké et le chant avec Reynaldo Hahn.  En 1902, il chanta pour la première fois à la Scala de Milan, dans Tannhäuser

Leo Slezak à l’époque où il chantait à Vienne
Leo Slezak dans le rôle d’Otello au Met en 1909 avec Frances Alda

Slezak a obtenu un contrat de trois ans avec le New-York Metropolitan Opera en 1909 où il fit ses débuts avec Otello. Il y chantera Otello de 1909 à 1913, notamment sous la direction de Arturo Toscanini. Le public américain l’acclama dans des œuvres de Wagner et Verdi. Avec l’Italien Giovanni Zenatello, il est devenu le plus célèbre Otello de sa génération. Sa réputation grandit grâce à ses interprétations wagnériennes (Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Walther des Maitres chanteurs de Nuremberg de Wagner), et verdiennes (Manrico du Trouvère, Radamès d’Aïda), et aussi à son incarnation de Hermann (La Dame de Pique de Tchaïkovski) sous la direction de Gustav Mahler… Leo Slezak se révéla également un excellent interprète de lieder.

Slezak en 1912

C’était une personne conviviale et de nombreuses anecdotes révèlent son sens de l’humour. L’exemple le plus connu est le suivant: lors d’une représentation du Lohengrin de Wagner, un machiniste a envoyé le cygne trop tôt, avant que le ténor ne puisse monter à bord. Voyant son transport à plumes disparaître dans les coulisses, Slezak a annoncé au public: “Wann fährt der nächste Schwan?” (“Quand part le prochain cygne?”). Dans un autre cas, rapporté dans ses mémoires sans donner de noms ni de lieux, il raconte que lorsqu’un inconnu s’est présenté à une répétition de l’opéra Armide de Gluck et a échangé quelques mots avec Slezak, ce dernier à présenté l’un de ses collègues comme étant Gluck lui-même venu lui dire qu’il n’avait jamais entendu Renaud ( Le rôle de Slezak) si bien chanté. Le visiteur crédule fut furieux quand il découvrit que Gluck était mort depuis environ 150 ans.

Slezak dans Lohengrin

Bien qu’il revint à l’Opéra d’État de Vienne en 1913, il continua de faire des apparitions internationales jusqu’à sa représentation d’adieu dans le rôle de Canio en 1933. Slezak avait un répertoire polyvalent qui comprenait 66 rôles. Ils comprenaient notamment Guillaume Tell, Manrico, Radames, Walter, Tannhäuser, Hermann et, comme nous l’avons vu, Otello et Lohengrin. Il a chanté 44 rôles à Vienne.

En 1932, Après avoir abandonné la scène lyrique, il se lança dans une carrière d’acteur de cinéma en Allemagne et en Autriche, et joua dans quarante-cinq films allemands jusqu’en 1943, principalement des comédies et des films musicaux (où lui-même chantait). Parmi ses partenaires à l’écran, citons la soprano Maria Jeritza, Ingrid Bergman, Magda Schneider, Zarah Leander, Hans Albers, S. Z. Sakall, entre autres.

Leo Slezak et son épouse

Sa femme était une actrice et son fils, Walter Slezak, a suivi sa carrière (au départ contre la volonté de son père), tandis que sa fille, Margarete, a également poursuivi une carrière de chanteuse d’opéra. Sa petite-fille, Erika (la fille de Walter), fut une célèbre star de feuilletons télévisés. Walter a écrit What Time’s the Next Swan?, Une combinaison affectueuse et humoristique d’autobiographie et de biographie de la vie de ses parents, et Slezak lui-même a écrit plusieurs volumes de mémoires.

D’abord domicilié à Berlin ou à Vienne, il s’établit en 1943 avec son épouse à Rottach-Egern, en Bavière, où il mourut le 1er juin 1946 à l’âge de 72 ans. Il est enterré au cimetière Sankt Laurentius Rottach-Egern. Il est l’auteur d’une autobiographie publiée en 1938.

La tombe de Leo Slezak à Rottach-Egern, en Bavière
Leo Slezak

 Slezak possédait une grande voix lyrique-dramatique qui lui permettait d’assurer toutes les parties wagnériennes sauf les plus lourdes telles que Siegfried ou Tristan. Il avait aussi un timbre personnel qui est devenu nettement plus sombre après ses études avec de Reszke en 1908. Slezak était un maître du chant mezza-voce et il pouvait également ltenir des notes de tête obsédantes. Malheureusement, avec le temps et une utilisation intensive, son registre supérieur est devenu tendu et instable, surtout à plein volume, comme on peut l’entendre sur certains de ses enregistrements.

Il a fait des centaines d’enregistrements de disques et de cylindres, commençant au début des années 1900 et se terminant dans les années 1930. Ils ont été produits par plusieurs maisons de disques différentes et comprennent des airs, des duos et des chansons d’une large sélection de compositeurs, allant de Mozart à Wagner. La plupart de ses meilleurs disques ont été publiés sur des compilations de CD. Une partie de son travail cinématographique en tant qu’acteur survit également.

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