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Véronique Gens (soprano)
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Hervé Niquet
rec. 2017, Studio 1, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich
Sung texts and English translations provided
ALPHA CLASSICS 279 [55.43]

This CD has already received a review from Michael Cookson, who wrote at some length about the music, so in this review I do not intend to go over the same ground again. I can particularly recommend Mr. Cookson’s review for its provision of much-needed context for several of the arias, something which, incomprehensibly, is completely lacking in the CD booklet.

This CD has garnered much praise in several publications and websites. The music is indeed of great interest and rarity; I consider myself fairly well up on 19th century French opera, but, although I knew all the composers, several of the operas were completely unknown to me. The music is all very enjoyable, though none of it has that absolute memorability, which makes for an aria that can have a separate life from an otherwise essentially forgotten opera (as, for example, “E la solita storia” from Cilea’s L’arlesiana or “Ebben, ne andrò lontana” from Catalani’s Loreley have).

Where I have to take some issue with the other reviews concerns the performances. Véronique Gens has taken part in other Bru Zane issues, including the most recent one, Saint-Saëns’s Proserpine. She is, undoubtedly, a good singer, but I can’t help but feel that she has been somewhat over-praised. Responses to individual voices are, of course, very personal (to take two clear examples, both Peter Pears and Ian Bostridge provoke responses which are little short of adoration on one side and loathing on the other), but in Gens I’m afraid I cannot find a voice, which even approaches the exceptional. The tone is quite attractive, but there is a tremulousness to it, which to my ears deprives it of a solid centre, and the high notes acquire a rather acid stridency when any pressure is put on them. She is musical in her phrasing, and shapes all the pieces with sensitivity; the lovely Lalla Roukh aria is especially effective (it is a real shame that Bru Zane chose to record David’s mediocre Herculanum rather than this opera). The aspect, which undermines my enjoyment of her singing, is her diction, which is sometimes very poor.

Anyone who watched the recent Cardiff Singer of the World on the BBC may remember resident expert Mary King making a distinction between singers, who were desperate to communicate with the audience and those who were not, and Véronique Gens would not pass the Mary King test. One of the most important classes for singers at the Paris Conservatoire until well after the First World War was “Déclamation”, in which they studied how to pronounce text and communicate meaning. One of the central aspects of true French style is absolute clarity of diction through the placing of the words “dans la masque”, that is at the front of the mouth. In many places in this recital I would defy even a native Frenchman to have any idea of the text Gens is singing, without recourse to the booklet. This is, of course, very largely to do with the articulation of the consonants, and some of the things Gens does, even in recitative sections, would have made even Joan Sutherland blush. Listen, for example, to the line “Pourqoui bat-il si fort dans la paix de ce cloître?” in the aria from Février’s Gismonda (track 6) which means “Why does it [my heart] throb so wildly in the peace of the cloister?” The character’s emotion here is an intense anguish and there are plosives (the letters b and p), the hard c on “cloître” and the colour of the “o” in “fort”, which the librettist provides to allow the singer to convey this emotion. Gens does not take any of these opportunities. Even worse is the final line of the aria “Ô nuit qui parlez du bonheur d’aimer et d’être aimée”, which is little better than a vocalise. As a result the characterisation is generalised rather than specific. On occasions she does articulate the text well, as in the recitative to the aria from La Magicienne (track 10), but she does not do so consistently even in this short section. I could make this same criticism about parts of every single track on the CD. Gens constantly swallows consonants and makes very little use of one of the distinguishing characteristics of classical French singing, which sets it apart from ordinary spoken French - the rolled r. Indeed, until comparatively recently, this characterised not just the classical singing style - listen to Edith Piaf! The rolled r is a god-send for characterisation because it can be articulated in so may ways, from the erotic to the furious. About 20 years ago a French baritone (I think it was François le Roux, but I may be misremembering) issued a CD of French songs, where he used the sort of back-of-the-throat pronunciation (technically, a type of uvular fricative) used in spoken French. I am glad to say that it got very short shrift from the critics. I do hope that Gens’s swallowed r is not a similar attempt to move towards “naturalistic” pronunciation - opera is not a naturalistic art form. Gens is far from insensitive to the emotions of the arias; she certainly does not just bawl her way through like a female Mario del Monaco or just tweet prettily like a modern Lily Pons, but she is of necessity broad-brush in her interpretations because of her lack of specific articulation and colouring of consonants. I do not want anyone to go away with the impression that I think Véronique Gens’s performances are poor; there is some lovely, effective singing. However, the areas in which she does fall down are, I think, central to a truly effective performance of this repertoire. An intense course of listening to recordings of French singers, whose careers were between about 1860 and 1960 could transform her performances.

The conducting on the CD is also good, but again the detail is not always to be found. Niquet is at his best in the more dramatic aspects, such as the very arresting opening bars to the aria from Geneviève (track 1), but I find his sense of legato less developed than I would like, as this same track demonstrates shortly afterwards. The orchestral introduction to the aria from Les Guelfes (track 4) also shows this, and the orchestral phrases 2:40 into the “Extase de la Vierge” (track 9) are particularly disappointing - there is a good sense of momentum, but no real legato; the violins clearly sound like they are playing each note with a separate bow stroke. The only purely orchestral piece on the CD is the “Dernier sommeil de la Vierge” (track 8) from the same work, and no-one, who knows Beecham’s recording, will be satisfied with Niquet. The orchestra itself is fine, though I fear that Niquet has tried to get the strings to sound “authentic”; to my ears they often merely sound scrawny on sustained notes.

Although I have been critical of aspects of these performances, I am delighted to have this rare repertoire and am very appreciative of the artists’ willingness to learn pieces, which they are very unlikely ever to perform again. For all my moans, I will play this CD often.

Paul Steinson

Previous review: Michael Cookson

Alfred BRUNEAU (1857-1934)
Geneviève de Paris (1881) Introduction, récitatif et air de Genevieve - Seigneur ! Est-ce bien moi que vous avez choisie ? [06.28]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Les Béatitudes (1879): Mater dolorosa, moi, du sauveur, je suis la mère [03.19]
Louis NIEDERMEYER (1802-1861)
Stradella (1837) Récit et air de Léonor - Ah !… Quel songe affreux ! [03.55]
Benjamin GODARD (1849-1895)
Les Guelfes (1882) Prélude et air de Jeanne: Là-bas, vers le palais [08.11]
Félicien DAVID (1810-1876)
Lalla-Roukh (1862): Air de Lalla-Roukh - Sous le feuillage sombre [02.59]
Henry FÉVRIER (1875-1957)
Gismonda (1919) Air de Gismonda - Dit-elle vrai ? [04.45]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Étienne Marcel (1879): Récit et air de Beatrix - Ah ! Laissez-moi, ma mère!…
Ô beaux rêves évanouis! [05.03]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
La Vierge (1880): Le dernier sommeil de la Vierge (orchestral piece) [02.54]
La Vierge: Extase de la Vierge - Rêve infini, divine extase [05.02]
Jacques Fromental HALÉVY (1799-1862)
La Magicienne (1858): Récit et air de Blanche - Ce sentier nous conduit vers le couvent voisin [05.35]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Clovis et Clotilde (1857): Prière de Clotilde - Prière, ô doux souffle de l’ange! [02.16]
Rédemption (1874): Air de l’Archange - Le flot se lève [03.17]



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