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Before serving in the French army and air force from 1916, Thill had worked for a short time in the Paris Stock Exchange; but when he returned to civilian life an uncle encouraged him to enter the Paris Conservatoire, where from 1919 he studied solfège and singing with Ernest Dupré and André Gresse. Admiring the improvement in the singing of a fellow student who had recently studied with Fernando de Lucia he himself went to Naples to become a pupil during 1921 and 1922 of the great tenor, with whom he perfected the bel canto techniques of legato and mezza voce singing.

In 1924 Thill made his debut at the Paris Opera as Nicias / Thaïs. He enjoyed great success at the Opera where he sang regularly until 1940; his roles included Jean / Hérodiade and Roland / Esclarmonde (both by Massenet); Raoul / Les Huguenots, Admète / Alceste (Gluck), Faust / La Damnation de Faust, Enée / Les Troyens and Arnold / Guillaume Tell; the title roles in Faust, Roméo et Juliette (both Gounod), Samson et Dalila, Mârouf (Rabaud), Lohengrin, Tannhäuser and Parsifal; Walther / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the Duke / Rigoletto, Canio / Pagliacci, Alfredo / La traviata, Radamès / Aida and Calaf / Turandot. He also sang in many first performances at the Opera including those of Brocéliande (André Bloch, 1925), Naïlla (Gaubert, 1927), La Tour de Feu (Lazzari, 1928), Vercingétorix (title role, Canteloube, 1933) and Rolande et les mauvais Garçons (Rabaud, 1934).

At the Opera-Comique Thill first appeared in 1928 as Don José / Carmen; later he sang Gerald / Lakmé, des Grieux / Manon, Cavaradossi / Tosca, Canio and the title role in Werther. It was as Calaf that he made his debuts in 1928 at the Verona Arena and in 1930 at La Scala, Milan where his repertoire also included Dick Johnson / La fanciulla del West. He sang at the Royal Opera House, London in 1928 (as Samson) and in 1937 (as Don José).

The role was Calaf once again when Thill made his debut at the Teato Colón, Buenos Aires in 1929; the following year he also appeared there in the title roles of Sadko and Don Carlo and as Don José. Later seasons at Buenos Aires included 1931, 1936 and 1938. He made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in the spring of 1931 as Roméo, swiftly followed by Gounod’s Faust, Radamès, Cavaradossi and Don José. He returned the following year as Gerald and made his final Met appearance as Sadko at the end of March 1932.

Thill sang as a guest at the Vienna State Opera (1934), the Royal Opera Stockholm and Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels and also undertook an extensive tour of Russia in 1936. He appeared in several films, most notably in 1938 with the American soprano Grace Moore in Louise (based on Charpentier’s opera), directed by Abel Gance. He remained active during World War II and toured Australia following the restoration of peace.

During the latter part of his career, Thill was prone to cancel appearances, ascribing the problem to voice damage caused by over-use in earlier years. He made his final operatic stage appearance in 1953 as Canio at the Opéra-Comique.

Thill possessed a virile but beautiful tenor voice, which enabled him to master the three major repertoires of French, Italian and German Romantic opera. In all he displayed superb diction, elegant phrasing and great musical taste; and may be considered one of the finest French singers of the last century. He recorded prolifically.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).

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