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Régine Crespin chante L’Opéra français
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)

Plus grands dans son obscurité from La Reine de Saba (a)
O ma lyre immortelle from Sappho (a)
Il était un roi de Thule from Faust (a)
Ernest REYER (1823-1909) Salut, splendour du jour from Sigurd (a)
Fromental HALEVY (1799-1862) Il va venir from La Juive (a)
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)

O mes soeurs from Marie-Magdeleine (a)
Air des Lettres from Werther (a)
Va, laisse coule mes larmes; Ah! Mon courage m’abandonné from Werther (b)
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787) O toi qui prolongéas mes jours from Iphigenie en Tauride (b)
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) D’amour, l’ardente flamme from La Damnation de Faust (b)
Georges BIZET (1838-1875) L’amour est un oiseau rebelle; Seguedille from Carmen (b)
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) La chanson de Scozzone from Ascanio (b)
Orchestra Symphonique (a)
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (b)
Jesus Etchéverry (conductor) (a)
Alain Lombard (conductor) (b)
Recorded: 1961 Vega (a); 1971 Decca (b)
ACCORD 476 072 -2 [76.14]

What does a French dramatic soprano sound like and when did you last hear one? Many people will be familiar with the historic recordings of French opéra-comique from the 1950s and with the recordings of Ninon Vallin and Georges Thill. But the 19th century French dramatic repertoire is less familiar and its interpreters even rarer. This recital disc by the French soprano Régine Crespin is a welcome opportunity to hear a French dramatic soprano in appropriate repertoire. And dramatic Crespin was, being justly famous for her performances of Kundry, Sieglinde and the Marschallin as well as her roles in the French and Italian repertoire. It is one of life’s ironies that some of her best known recordings are of the German repertoire.

This disc consists of not one, but two recitals. The first seven items date from 1961 and come from Crespin’s second LP recording. Crespin had a love-hate relationship with recording, describing the microphone as mon cher cauchemar (nightmare). In her autobiography she describes the 1961 recording session as follows: ‘It seemed to me […] that you couldn’t hear me at all! I ended up yelling as loud as I could throughout the sessions: it was a fight between me and "it"’.

The first aria is from Gounod’s ‘La Reine de Saba’ which was written in 1862, three years after ‘Faust’ and just before ‘Mireille’ and ‘Roméo et Juliette’. But crippled with an unsatisfactory libretto which involves a love triangle between King Solomon, Balkis (the Queen of Sheba of the title) and his principal sculptor and architect, the opera never really equalled the success of ‘Faust’ or ‘Roméo’. I was immediately struck by Crespin’s superb diction, something which is common to all the recordings on the disc. Another feature is the almost Nordic brightness of her voice. She sings with cool clear lines giving the music an intensity which makes something more of Gounod’s rather sentimental music. There are moments when she caresses the music which make you almost believe the opera might be worth listening to. There is a bit of ‘wow’ at the top of her voice, which is present in most of the items from the 1961 sessions, probably the result of her unfortunate microphone experience.

‘Sappho’ was Gounod’s first opera; again it involves a complex love triangle with the Greek poetess Sappho as protagonist. It was really only a ‘succès d’estime’ and Sappho’s "O ma lyre immortelle", which she sings at the end of the opera just before leaping into the sea, is the opera’s best known number. Again, Crespin is superb at spinning out the long lines, giving a haunting, neo-classical stature to Gounod’s music.

With Marguerite’s Ballad from ‘Faust’ we are in more familiar territory. Whilst Crespin might not be obvious casting as Marguerite, she sings the ballad quite touchingly. However, Marguerite was a role with which she was associated in her early career and I would be fascinated to hear what she made of the coloratura of the Jewel Song.

With Reyer’s ‘Sigurd’ we venture into really obscure territory. The opera uses the same characters as Wagner’s Götterdämmerung with a similar plot based on the Nibelungenlied. Reyer knew no Wagner later than Lohengrin and was unaware that Wagner was working on the same plot. Though old-fashioned in tone and rather wordy, the piece was surprisingly popular. In the 1950s Crespin had some success in the French provinces with the role of Brunnehilde and she brings convincing nobility and fascination to this music, again making you want to hear more.

Halévy’s vast historical opera ‘La Juive’ has retained a toe-hold in the opera house, despite it’s rather improbable dramaturgy, perhaps because of Halévy’s strong melodic invention. The first Rachel was Cornélie Falcon who gave her name to the type of French dramatic soprano required for these roles, a type to which Crespin belonged. Her singing of Rachel’s ‘Il va venir’ is quite affecting.

Massenet’s sacred drama, Marie-Magdeleine was one of his first successes, with Pauline Viardot singing the role of Méryem. It is rather closer to opera than oratorio; Méryem’s aria, ‘O me soeurs’ is truly romantic and not a little sentimental; it could easily come from an opera. Crespin displays all of her virtues here, but they are put to better use with the next Massenet item, the ‘Air de Lettres’ from ‘Werther’. Here we seem get a more fully rounded dramatic portrayal.

There is a gap of ten years between this item and the next. All the remaining items on the disc were recorded in 1971. This was an eventful decade for Crespin. Her Kundry was followed by Sieglinde, Leonore, Ariadne and Brünnhilde (Wagner this time, in ‘Die Walküre’). But by the late 1960s she was having vocal difficulties with her upper register and she re-trained as a mezzo-soprano. This is reflected in the choice of items for the recital.

The 1971 recital opens with two further items from ‘Werther’. If the previous aria from the opera seemed to enter a new dramatic world, in these two recordings Crespin’s performance seems to take on new depths of drama and a more fully-rounded character. Her voice is darker and richer, but the familiar virtues are still there though there is sometimes a bit of a beat. The recording itself has improved and the Orchestra de Las Suisse Romande under Alain Lombard make fine accompanist.

‘Iphigénie en Tauride’ is a role which Crespin toured in the mid-1960s and there survives a live recording of the opera from Buenos Aires. She sings the Iphigénie’s recitative and aria from Act I of the opera. In the live recording Crespin is moving, but cool and neo-classical with long spun lines. Here in the studio, she seems to bring more dramatic intensity to the aria, greater depth to the character but at a slight cost to the perfection of the vocal line, a cost that I think I can easily live with. Lombard’s orchestral accompaniment is inevitably a little heavier than we might consider nowadays.

Berlioz was another composer with whom Crespin was associated. She recorded substantial extracts from Les Troyens and here we have Marguerite’s lovely Romance from ‘La Damnation de Faust’. This is followed by two items from Carmen, which became something of a signature role for Crespin after her move to mezzo-soprano. There is little in her performance that sounds like a soprano manqué, just attention to the music with an underlying dark sultriness. The final item is another novelty, Scozzone’s aria from Saint-Saëns’ ‘Ascanio’, a charming piece, charmingly sung.

This disc provides a welcome opportunity to hear Crespin in a wide variety French repertoire. It is a good counterbalance to her studio recordings of Wagner and Strauss and the many recordings of her in the Italian repertory, often sung in French. Not everyone will like Crespin’s style. Her earlier recordings have a neo-classical coolness that is combined with an intensity that I find very appealing. Her later recording, show her preserving many of her later virtues combined with a greater depth, but they do sometimes hinting at her vocal problems. Still, I would have no hesitation at recommending this disc to anyone interested in French singing and French opera.

Robert Hugill

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