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Naive 15th Anniversary Limited Edition
Marie-Nicole Lemieux (contralto)
Ne me refuse pas
Streams of Pleasure
Contents list below review
Orchestre National de France/Fabien Gabel
Il complesso barocco/Alan Curtis
rec. 2010/11
Originally issued as V5201 & V5261
NAÏVE NC40039 [78:00 + 75:00]

The Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux has had a busy international career as concert singer and recitalist as well as on the opera stage. This can be traced from 2000 when she won the First Prize and the Special Prize for Lieder at the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in Belgium.

Although best known as a baroque singer she also sings such heavy stuff as Azucena in Il trovatore and Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera. In this double-pack Naïve have put together two rather recent recordings as part of the company’s 15th Anniversary and offers them at an attractive price.

The earliest of the discs is a real find, not only for the music-making but also for the choice of repertoire. There are some standards here: the Carmen Habanera and Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix from Samson et Dalila, which everybody knows. That said, how often have you encountered something from Hérodiade, Médée, Charles VI (I wasn’t aware of its existence) or Clytemnestre (I wasn’t even aware of the composer)? The first question that arose was: ‘Such unknown repertoire, can it be any good?’ So I set to work from the beginning of the disc.

Massenet’s Hérodiade is not completely unknown and it is given an outing once in a while but a search on Operabase for the period 1 January 2013 – 31 December 2016 was negative. There are however two complete recordings on CD, both issued in 1995 and with stellar casts: Michel Plasson on EMI (which I have) with his Toulouse forces offers Cheryl Studer, Nadine Denize, Ben Heppner, Thomas Hampson and José Van Dam. There's also Valery Gergiev on Sony with the San Francisco Opera has Renée Fleming, Dolora Zajick, Plácido Domingo, Juan Pons and Kenneth Cox. There is a great deal of top-drawer music in the opera and Hérodiade’s scene, with a couple of lines from Herode as well, is one of the highlights. Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s gorgeous contralto with attractive vibrancy is a flexible instrument. She impresses also in her soft singing, retaining her contralto quality but avoids the heaviness of many altos. Her pianissimos are ravishing. In this scene though it is the dramatic power and expressivity that are to the fore and her brilliant top notes are really thrilling. The young François Lis is a good lyric bass.

Cherubini’s Médée is more of a standard work, though at the periphery. The Royal Stockholm Opera mounted it thirty years ago for Margareta Hallin as her farewell performance and it hasn’t been seen there ever since. On Operabase during the abovementioned period there are several hits including the ENO 2013, and Geneva, opening in the spring of 2015. In Moscow the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Academic Music Theatre will open it at the end of November — when you read this it has already opened. There are others as well.

On CD there are a couple of live recordings from the 1990s of the original French version and several of the Italian version, including three with Maria Callas. Two of those are live recordings and the third, from 1957, is a studio job with La Scala forces under Tullio Serafin with Miriam Pirazzini singing Neris and a young Renata Scotto as Glauce (EMI). On Decca there is a recording from 1967 under Lamberto Gardelli with Gwyneth Jones, Pilar Lorengar and as Neris a formidable Fiorenza Cossotto. These two are well worth hearing. A Hungaroton recording from a decade later, also under Gardelli, has Sylvia Sass in the title role and Klára Tákacs as Neris. I haven’t heard this one but it had favourable reviews when it was first issued. The Neris aria is truly beautiful, one of the most memorable in the whole score and Marie-Nicole Lemieux sings it beautifully with restrained intensity. There is also a charming bassoon solo in the introduction to the aria and later the bassoon joins the singer in a duet. Philippe Hanon plays excellently.

Fromental Halévy’s reputation rests almost entirely upon his grand opera La juive from 1835. It was a cornerstone of the French opera repertoire for nearly a century, was admired by Mahler, who regarded it as one of the best operas ever, and by Wagner. It is still played and during the spring of 2015 can be seen in Antwerp, Ghent, Nice, Vilnius and Vienna. It has been recorded several times. Charles VI, on the other hand, is long forgotten, although it was rather popular once and had some critical acclaim as well. It would be interesting to hear something else from this opera since there is dramatic intensity in the recitative and the aria Humble fill des champs is lyrical and beautiful with delicious orchestration.

Hector Berlioz wrote three operas: Benvenuto Cellini (1838), Les Troyens (1858) and Béatrice et Bénédict (1862). La damnation de Faust (1846) is labelled ‘légende dramatique’ but is not infrequently staged in opera houses, and Roméo et Juliette (1839) is a ‘symphonie dramatique’ both works for solo voices, chorus and orchestra. The contralto solo with chorus heard here from the latter is very beautiful. I can fully understand Lemieux wanting to perform it separated from the symphony, which is performed but not too often, due to the big orchestral and choral forces required.

André Wormser? I guess more than one reader wonders what they have missed. Me too. I had to look him up and found that he was a banker and composer, who studied at the Paris Conservatory, not without success. In 1872 he won the Premier Prize in piano and three years later the Prix de Rome for his cantata Clytemnestre, an excerpt from which is included here. He wrote operas as well and he is best remembered – insofar as he is remembered at all – for the pantomime L’Enfant prodigue (1890), a work that reached New York in 1916. The aria here is certainly worth a listen.

Ambroise Thomas wrote twenty-four operas and many of them were quite popular but he had to wait more than thirty years before his international breakthrough. That was with Mignon in 1866. Only in Paris had it been seen more than one thousand times when Thomas died in 1896. This makes it one of the most successful French operas ever. Today it is a rare bird even on French stages and so is his other lasting success, Hamlet (1868), though it was seen at the Met in 2010. Some of the arias from Mignon are still popular recital numbers, in particular the one heard on this disc. There are some complete recordings available: a Met broadcast from 1945 with Rise Stevens and Ezio Pinza in the cast, a Belgian recording from 1952 with Janine Micheau, Libero de Luca and René Bianco and, the recommendable one from 1977 under Antonio de Almeida with a starry line-up of soloists: Marilyn Horne, Ruth Welting, Alain Vanzo, Nicola Zaccaria and Frederica von Stade. I have dozens of recordings of Connais-tu le pays? but Marie-Nicole Lemieux can stand comparison with any of them. The aria is lovingly sung and the flute soloist should also have been credited.

This was the first really well known aria and so is what follows. Massenet’s Manon and Thaïs were for many years the two most popular of his operas but today it is Werther that leads the field. There are about a dozen recordings available. Charlotte’s letter scene from the third act is central in the opera and here Lemieux lightens the tone to heighten the feeling of vulnerability. It is all deeply moving.

Everybody knows the Habanera from Carmen and it has been recorded on innumerable occasions. Most Carmen interpreters tend to stress the outwardness of the song but Lemieux’s reading is restrained and nuanced, without showiness. This is a true homage to love.

Berlioz’s monumental Les Troyens took quite some time to be established. The composer never lived to hear it performed in its entirety. Only 21 years after his death it was played (sung in German) at Karlsruhe conducted by Felix Mottl. Even though this was the ice-break it is only in the last forty or so years that it has been performed with some regularity. Didon’s aria from the last act belongs among the most beautiful things that Berlioz ever wrote and it is lovingly performed here.

This highly interesting – and wide-ranging – recital is rounded off with another favourite: Dalila’s Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix. It is sung with real care for the contents, smoothly and with deep feeling.

The playing of the Orchestre National de France is first-class and the recording is excellent. It should be in the collection of every lover of French opera.

By the way: there is a pleasant surprise after the Saint-Saëns aria, so don’t turn off at once. Let the disc run.

The second disc of the set takes us to a quite different field of vocal music. I am not sure that everybody who is interested in romantic French opera also likes baroque, and vice versa. If that is so it is a relief to report that both discs are still available separately. On the other hand it would be a pity for the romantic camp not to investigate the world of Handel – and vice versa.

In this programme with arias and duets from some of Handel’s oratorios – not an opera aria within sight – Lemieux is joined by fellow-Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin, who has made herself a name primarily as one of today’s leading baroque singers, just as Lemieux first dazzled the musical world with her breakneck coloratura singing in Handel and Vivaldi. The two are well contrasted: Her marvellous voice is deep, dark and smooth; Karina’s bright, slim and elegant and sails light-heartedly up in the air. When singing together the two voices blend beautifully.

Lemieux opens with the martial aria Destructive war from Belshazzar. In our tumultuous world with armed conflicts raging in Ukraine, in Syria, in Iraq, in Africa, Cyrus’s words are worth considering:
Destructive war, thy limits know;
Here, tyrant death, thy terrors end.
To tyrants only I’m a foe,
To virtue and her friends, a friend.

Il Complesso Barocco play the colourful and brilliant orchestral opening with frenzy – the playing throughout the disc is superb and Alan Curtis knows his Handel. The advanced coloratura is no obstacle for this contralto, it is rock-steady.

After the repose in the duet from Theodora Lemieux retains her state of fury in the highly dramatic aria from Alexander Balus. More superb coloratura – and her deepest notes are really impressive. Gauvin counters with a marvellous aria from Susanna, and this mix in a well composed programme is one of the strengths of this disc. A plain solo programme, however well executed, can in the long run be – well, dull isn’t quite the right word but most recitals gain from the variety one gets with different voices and some duets as well. With Handel there is variety aplenty anyway, but especially the listener who isn’t a die-hard baroque freak will welcomes the broader palette that contrasting voices bring to the table.

Every number here is a gem but playing one or two at a time makes them stand out even more as masterpieces than when listening straight through a programme of 75 minutes. I won’t bore you, dear reader, with comments on each number but pick some that went directly to my heart:

The title duet Streams of pleasure (tr. 6) is in reality an aria followed by the loveliest duet: Thither let our hearts aspire. It is a pity the duet wasn’t separately banded, since I believe that many listeners would like to return to it – with easy access. The same goes for track 7, a recitative followed by the aria As with rosy steps the morn, a lovely da capo-aria which Lemieux sings with warmth, inwardly and with embellishments in the reprise.

Karina Gauvin is extraordinarily sensitive in the touching aria My father! Ah, methink I see the sword inflict the deadly wound (tr. 13) which is preceded by a recitative. She also sings the wonderful Oh! That I on wings could rise (tr. 14) from Theodora. The finale brings us back to where we started, Belshazzar and the peaceful duet Great victor, at your feet I bow.

Handel wrote an enormous amount of wonderful music and every time I hear something I haven’t heard before – or something I have forgotten that I’ve heard – I say to myself: 'I will listen to that aria and that aria again tomorrow'. This seldom happens, I’m afraid, and possibly other listeners have the same experience. There are a number of arias, from operas and oratorios by Handel, that have become ‘standards’, not only Ombra mai fu which everybody knows, but so many others – and duets – are worth hearing and adding to the ‘canon’. Handel lovers will need no persuasion from me to acquire this set and get the romantic arias in the bargain. Those still not won over, Handelians in spe, should grab the opportunity to explore these riches.

Göran Forsling

Previous reviews: Ne me refuse pas ~~ Streams of Pleasure

Ne me refuse pas
Jules MASSENET (1842 – 1912)
Hérodiade (1881)
1. Ne me refuse pas [6:07]
Luigi CHERUBINI (1760 – 1842)
Médée (1797)
2. Ah! Non peines seront communes [8:54]
Fromental HALÉVY (1799 – 1862)
Charles VI (1843)
3. Sous leur sceptre … Humble fille des champs [12:10]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803 – 1869)
Roméo et Juliette (1839)
4. Premiers transports [6:52]
André WORMSER (1851 – 1926)
Clytemnestre (1875)
5. Qu’Apollon soit loué … Ombre d’Agamemnon [6:08]
Ambroise THOMAS (1811 – 1896)
Mignon (1866)
6. Connais-tu le pays? [5:43]
Werther (1892)
7. Werther, Werther! Qui m’aurait dit la place… [11:12]
Georges BIZET (1838 – 1875)
Carmen (1875)
8. L’amour est un oiseau rebelle [4:35]
Les Troyens (1863)
9. Je vais mourir [6:17]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921)
Samson et Dalila (1877)
10. Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix [6:34]
Marie-Nicole Lemieux (contralto), François Lis (bass)(1), Philippe Hanon (bassoon)(2), Le jeune choeur de Paris (4, 8)
Orchestre National de France/Fabien Gabel
rec. July 2010, Studio 103, Maison de la Radio, Paris, France
Texts with English translations enclosed

Streams of Pleasure
George Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1759)
Belshazzar (1744) HWV 61
1. Destructive war* [2:27]
Theodora (1749) HWV 68
2. To thee, thou glorious son of worth*** [4:46]
Alexander Balus (1747) HWV 65
3. Fury with red sparkling eyes* [6:06]
Susanna (1748) HWV 66
4. Lead me … Crystal streams in murmurs flowings** [6:49]
Judas Maccabaeus (1746) HWV 63
5. From this dread scene*** [3:01]
6. Streams of pleasure ever flowing*** [5:40]
7. Ah! Whither should we fly? … As with rosy steps the morn* [6:56]
Joseph and his brethren (1743) HWV 59
8. Prophetic raptures swell my breast** [8:49]
Joshua (1747) HWV 64
9. Our limpid streams with freedom flow*** [2:59]
Solomon (1748) HWV 67
10. Can I see my infant gor’d** [4:26]
Alexander Balus
11. Fair virtue shall charm me* [2:39]
12. Thou dair inhabitant … Welcome as the dawn of day*** [4:03]
Hercules (1744) HWV 60
13. Forgive me … My father** [6:42]
14. But why art thou disquieted … Oh! That I on wings could rise** [4:29]
15. Great victor, at your feet I bow*** [5:08]
Marie-Nicole Lemieux (contralto)*, Karina Gauvin (soprano)**, Duet ***
Il complesso barocco/Alan Curtis
rec. January 2011, Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy
Texts with French translations enclosed