One of the finest French baritones of the second half of the 20th century, Gabriel Bacquier has died aged 95. Though by no means confined to the French repertoire – he made memorable appearances in Italian opera too – he certainly distinguished himself in it. His natural talent as a singer-actor, combined with his meticulous articulation of the text, enabled him to excel in roles such as the four villains in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Sancho Panza in Massenet’s Don Quichotte and Doctor Bartolo in Il Barbiere di Siviglia.
His Golaud in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande was incomparable, encompassing extraordinary tenderness and heartrending empathy on the one hand, a terrifyingly oppressive jealousy on the other. His ability to slip unobtrusively in and out of parlando recitative lent his account of the role an ideally idiomatic quality. To comic roles such as Sancho Panza, Dulcamara (L’Elisir d’Amore) and Leporello (Don Giovanni) he brought a serious, even tragic dimension too, and nowhere more so than as Verdi’s Falstaff, where the melancholic aspects of the character were developed almost to the detriment of the comic.
Another Italian role in which he enjoyed much success was that of Baron Scarpia, where he deployed a subtle but lethal delivery that did not depend on brute force. He liked to say that he had held every Tosca in his embrace and it is true that with the exception of Callas, who favoured Tito Gobbi, he tormented all the leading Toscas of his day: Régine Crespin, Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Antonietta Stella, Renata Tebaldi and Leonie Rysanek.
Born in Béziers, Hérault, in the Midi, he was the son of Augustin Bacquier and his wife, Fernande (nee Severac). His parents, both railway employees, wanted him to become a commercial designer and he initially acceded to their wishes. After the experience of doing his national service on the railways during the Occupation, however, he changed tack. The voice lessons he had with a local teacher by the name of Madame Bastard led to his semi-professional debut as Ourrias in Gounod’s Mireille. He was then awarded a premier pris and two opera prizes at the Paris Conservatoire, beginning his professional career in José Beckman’s Compagnie Lyrique (1950–52). A course in drama enabled him to develop his acting talents.
After three years at La Monnaie, Brussels (where he made his debut as Rossini’s Figaro), he joined the Opéra-Comique in Paris (1956) where he took on roles such Sharpless (Madama Butterfly), Alfio (Cavalleria Rusticana), Albert (Werther) and Gianni Schicchi. His first appearance at the Paris Opéra was as Germont in La Traviata (1959). The following year he sang Scarpia opposite Tebaldi’s Tosca, also making his debut at the Aix-en-Provence festival. These appearances launched his international career. He was soon taking leading roles (Don Giovanni, Escamillo and Scarpia, among others) at the Vienna State Opera, the Liceu, Barcelona, the Grand Théâtre, Geneva, and the Lyric Opera, Chicago.
As Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro, the role in which he made his Glyndebourne debut (1962), his plea for forgiveness from the Countess was always deeply moving. Following a concert at Carnegie Hall, he returned to the US in 1963 to sing Germont opposite Joan Sutherland in Philadelphia.
He made his Metropolitan, New York, debut as the High Priest (Samson et Dalila) in 1964 and subsequently appeared regularly there in roles that included Iago, Fra Melitone (La Forza del Destino), the Hoffmann villains, Scarpia, Golaud and Massenet’s Lescaut. Other American engagements included Don Giovanni in Seattle and Michele (Il Tabarro) in San Francisco.
In 1964 came his Covent Garden debut opposite Sutherland as Sir Richard Forth in I Puritani. Other standout performances in a distinguished career include his Bartolo, alongside Ruggiero Raimondi’s Basilio, in Il Barbiere di Siviglia in Geneva (1983), in which his comic timing and vocal mastery were matched only by the virtuosity with which he manoeuvered his mobile chaise across the stage.
He took the title role in Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet in Toulouse (1961) and created the title role in Menotti’s The Last Savage at the Opéra-Comique (1963). Other contemporary composers in whose works he created roles or otherwise brought to the stage included Jean-Pierre Rivière, Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur, Maurice Thiriet, Paul Danblon, Jean-Michel Damase, Emile Desfossez and Maurice Fouret.
A long list of recording credits reflects his contribution to the genres in which he excelled, even if the results too infrequently match the satisfaction he could give in live performance. Exceptions include his Ramiro in L’Heure Espagnole for Lorin Maazel (1965), his Capulet in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette under Michel Plasson (1983), a magnificent Athanaël in Thaïs under Julius Rudel (1974) and an equally acclaimed Father in Charpentier’s Louise under George Prêtre (1976), as well as Somarone in Béatrice et Bénédict under John Nelson (1992).
The ability to spin a long legato line, coupled with clear enunciation of the text, that informed the singing of his native operatic repertory was also evident in his frequent forays into solo song. He performed and recorded mélodies by Ravel, Poulenc, Fauré, Duparc and others, with such collaborators as Jacques Février and Jean Laforge. They were characteristically understated accounts, relishing nuances and half-lights, frequently conveying a touching fragility as a high note was reached for in head voice.
Bacquier was also a sought-after teacher both at the Paris Conservatoire (until 1987) and from 2001 at the music academy in Monaco.
He had a son with each of his first two wives, Simone Teisseire and Mauricette Benard. His third wife was the soprano Michèle Command, and the fourth the mezzo-soprano Sylvie Oussenko, who wrote a biography of him, published in 2011. They married two years later, and she survives him.
• Gabriel Augustin Raymond Théodore Louis Bacquier, baritone, born 17 May 1924; died 13 May 2020