As he gradually moved away from leading roles, Michel Sénéchal has established himself as a star among comprimario singers. His vignettes, however brief, are of an order that instantly raises the artistic level in any production he chooses to embrace. His sophisticated sense of makeup, stage movement, comic timing, and seizing each element of irony and rendering it unforgettable all are built upon the underpinnings of a handsome light tenor voice, well-trained and always pleasant to hear. So dominant has this supporting artist become, the catalog reveals multiple recordings of his core repertory. His only predecessor to have achieved such prominence in this specialized niche was Swiss tenor Hughes Cuenod, an indelible artist himself, but one with a even lighter instrument.
Following studies at the Paris Conservatory, Sénéchal made his debut in 1950 at La Monnaie in Brussels. Under contract there for three seasons, he sang the lyric tenor repertory, as he continued to do later at both the Paris Opéra and the Opéra-Comique and in other theaters through France. His roles grew to include Rossini's Almaviva and Comte Ory, Hylas in Berlioz's Les Troyens, Paolino in Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto, Georges Brown in Boieldieu's La dame blanche, and three of Mozart's leading tenor parts: Tamino, Ferrando, and Don Ottavio. At Aix-en-Provence in 1956, Sénéchal sang the travesty role of Rameau's Platée, a curious creature of heart-stopping homeliness who believes herself to be beautiful. The role is both a leading one and a character study. His success in the role was so great, he was called upon to perform the part in Amsterdam, at the Monnaie, and later, the Opéra-Comique.
Steadily, Sénéchal established his supremacy in character roles, undertaking Monsieur Triquet in Tchaikovsky's Yevgeny Onegin (recorded with Solti); Schmidt in Werther; Trabuco in Verdi's La forza del destino; Scaramuccio in Ariadne auf Naxos; Erice in Cavalli's L'Ormindo; Valzacchi, Teapot, and Arithmetic in Ravel's enchanted L'enfant et les Sortileges; Gonzalve in Ravel's L'heure Espagnole (triumphantly sung at the 1966 Glyndebourne Festival with a cast including Hughes Cuenod as Torquemada); Rodriguez in Don Quichotte; the Brahmin in Roussel's exotic Padmâvatî; as well as Le Dancaire and Don Basilio, which he sang annually at the Salzburg Festival beginning in 1972. Sénéchal was chosen for the role of Don Jerome when Prokofiev's rarely performed Betrothal in a Monastery was produced at Strasbourg in 1973.
For Sénéchal's Metropolitan Opera debut on March 8, 1982, he was engaged for Les Contes d'Hoffmann, performing the four comic tenor roles, a turn that by then had all but become a signature assignment. Other roles following at the Metropolitan were Guillot in Massenet's Manon and Mozart's Don Basilio. Sénéchal has, in addition to established repertory stage works, undertaken contemporary operas. At Toulouse, he sang Fabien in the premiere of Marcel Landowski's Montségur in 1985. The same year, he appeared as Pope Leo X in Boehmer's Docktor Faustus at the Paris Opéra.
Sénéchal's mastery of the tenor character repertory has repeatedly brought him into the recording studio. His four comic characters in Hoffmann have been preserved on disc three times, while in James Levine's recording of Andrea Chénier, Sénéchal appears together with his greatly respected Italian counterpart, Piero di Palma, and supporting principals Scotto, Domingo, and Milnes. In addition to Offenbach's Hoffmann and a near-definitive Orphée aux enfers recorded under Plasson in 1978, Sénéchal appears with Dame Felicity Lott in a recording of La belle Hélène released in 2000.