Uncovered Treasure: Sarah Bernhardt in Performance

After spending a little time in fin-de-siècle Paris over the weekend, I went down a bit of a rabbit hole this morning and made a discovery.  I thought I’d share.

I suppose a little backstory is in order so you might understand why this is a big deal for me.  Sarah Bernhardt has always stood at the crossroads of many of my interests, like something of a ghost.  While studying art, you encounter Alphonse Mucha, and there she is.  While studying film, she’s there, legitimizing the medium where other “serious” stage actors of her age thought it a passing fad.  She was one of the first to be recorded for audio or video, though not much of either survives.  After all these years, I finally have the opportunity to hear her voice, and with it, the ability to experience some of her acting prowess.

These short recordings are exactly as scratchy and as substandard as one might imagine, and they’re only a few minutes each, but it doesn’t really matter to me.  I grew up with golden age radio, so my ears are more than attuned to filter past the white noise.  For me, the biggest limitation is that I don’t speak French.  I wish I did.  There are a great many languages I wish I could speak because of my diverse musical interests, but I can never seem to push past the mental blocks that allow me to retain any of it.  Even with the language barrier firmly in place, there’s a lot to be gained from this experience.

For starters, most of these recordings are clearly stage soliloquies, so more monotonous than her conversational voice might be.  She’s emoting as though in a trance, caught up in the embrace of the art for which she lived.  There are a handful of tracks where the performance is rather violent, so it’s easy to imagine what kind of presence she would have wrought for a live audience.

She’s a contralto, maybe a soprano if she opened herself up to that.  Not an overly sensual voice, nor one that might be geared toward song (though she might surprise me on that front as others have), but still graceful and powerful in equal measure.

More than that, hers is one of the defining voices of that era.  In a way it brings a great many things to life in a way that hasn’t quite manifest before now.  What’s most weird for me… she sounds exactly as she has in my imagination all these years.  It was like hearing the voice of an old friend.

I might have gotten a little teary-eyed.


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