Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux has recorded two Vivaldi operas for Naïve along with a recital of French songs. Now she steps forward with a recital of French 19th century operatic arias. This mixes the well known with the lesser known. The result provides an interesting overview of the contralto voice in French opera. It should however be borne in mind that the low contralto does not feature strongly in 19th century French opera, instead there were low soprano parts; Neris's aria from Cherubini's Médée is one such. The dramatic contralto became popular as a result of Italian influence. So that though Halévy's La Juive includes a pair of contrasting soprano parts, his opera Charles VI has a pairing of soprano with contralto. The interesting thing is that in the later 19th century, there seems to have been a return to the earlier type of mid-range, low soprano role which could be sung by either soprano or mezzo: Carmen, Charlotte (Werther) and Didon (Les Troyens) are such.
So Lemieux's recital presents a fascinating overview of these developments. It helps give a different slant on what might otherwise court the danger of being a routine traversal through standard repertoire. Not that there was much danger of this artist's recital being routine. She has an interesting voice - rich, melodious with a nice even production. A significant vibrato is offset by a strong core to her voice and she sings with a lovely sense of line.
Herodiade's aria from Massenet's Herodiade is no showpiece, but forms a nicely dramatic opening with support from Francois Lisse. Neris's aria from Médée is far more striking, with its long solo bassoon. Lemieux's mixed background, with her experience in baroque music, means that she shapes this scena in stunning fashion.
Odette's aria from Halévy's Charles VI is far more of a curiosity; we are lucky to encounter La Juive and Charles VI is a real rarity. This is followed by something more well-known, an aria from Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette, again beautifully sung and without a hint of the bottom-heaviness that some voices bring to this music. Lemieux is able to present dramatic virtuosity when necessary but the beauty of this performance is fine control and shading.
There then follows another rarity, an aria from André Wormser's 1875 cantata Clytemnestre, which won the Prix de Rome. It's a wonderfully dramatic piece, well put over by Lemieux. It left me wondering what the remainder of the cantata would be like.
The final five items are all more familiar territory, though Ambroise Thomas's Mignon is not as common as it used to be. Lemieux's account of Connais tu le pays? is nicely done, but she does sound a little bit mature for the role. This is also true of Charlotte, but then it must be admitted that Charlotte is a tricky role and the singer has to mature quickly throughout the opera. Lemieux's singing of the aria from Werther is so finely done that it quickly wins you over.
Her Carmen is again well sung, but she doesn't quite get under the skin of the character - her performance lacks the essential element of danger. This is also true of Didon, where Lemieux's finely modulated account of Je vais mourir isn't quite as gut-wrenching as it ought to be. Then finally, we have a very elegant account of Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix, though it seems a shame that having run to a bass for the aria from Herodiade and a chorus for two other pieces, we get the standard concert version of the aria without tenor.
But this isn't the end. Attached to the final track, like a delightful encore, is a sparkling account of an aria from Offenbach's La fille du tambour major.
As I have already suggested, Lemieux had given us some extremely beautiful singing on this disc, with fine vocal control. But for all the beauties, there are limitations. Didon and Carmen seem a little under-characterised and she does not make anything like enough of the words. I assume that Lemieux is a French-speaking Canadian, but she does not capitalise on this in her handling of the language.
The Orchestra National de France provide strong support under the baton of Fabien Gabel, and the Jeune Choeur de Paris appear in the extracts from Roméo et Juliette and Carmen.
The CD booklet includes texts and translations plus a fascinating article about 19th century developments in the operatic contralto voice. Unfortunately it gives scant information about the music performed, with no information about André Wormser.
This is a fine disc notable not only for some very fine singing from Marie-Nicole Lemieux, but also for an intelligent and well put together programme.