Véronique Gens (soprano)
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Hervé Niquet
rec. January 2017, Studio 1, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich
Sung texts and English translations provided ALPHA CLASSICS 279 [55.43]
Currently, at the height of her career in 2016, Véronique Gens with pianist Susan Manoff won the Gramophone award in the solo vocal category for the recital album Néère (review) a recital of French songs from Hahn, Duparc and Chausson.
Gens is one superb artist renowned for her prowess with Baroque and Classical era works particularly with Handel and Mozart roles but her repertoire is much wider than that. In particular I have enjoyed Gen’s portrayal of Madame Lidoine in Olivier Py’s new production of
Dialogues des Carmélites (review) from 2013 at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris on Erato Blu-ray. Back in March I reported her splendid performance on the opera stage in Munich playing Alice Ford in Eike Gramss’ Bayerische Staatsoper production of Verdi's
Now the French soprano has released her new album Visions on the Alpha Classics label. It’s a twelve work collection with the Münchner Rundfunkorchester under Hervé Niquet of Romantic era arias including a single orchestral work from Massenet’s oratorio La Vierge. Spanning a period of just over eighty years the programme comprises of Opera (Saint-Saëns, Niedermeyer, Halévy, Godard, Février), Opéra-Comique (David), Oratorio (Franck, Massenet) and Cantata (Bizet, Bruneau). The promotional material with this release describes Gens taking the “opportunity to display the maturity of her ‘Falcon’ soprano, the central tessitura typical of French Romantic opera, which takes its name from Cornélie Falcon, who created the works of Meyerbeer and Halévy staged in the 1830s.”
Singing in her native French language Gens is on her most compelling form with her stylish and expressive voice engaging unerringly with each aria together with her charismatic presence. Each of the eleven arias has merit although there are four that I single out for special praise. Félicien David’s opéra comique Lalla-Roukh features the Mughal princess Lalla-Roukh who chooses love for a poet-singer over an arranged marriage on behalf of her State. In Lalla-Roukh’s beautiful first act aria Sous le feuillage sombre Gens sings with remarkable tenderness demonstrating her smooth, creamy voice and effortless slide to her high register. Henry Février’s drame lyrique Gismonda features the widow of the Duke of Athens, who is acting as Regent for her son Francesco who is too young to rule the Duchy. Duchess Gismonda wants to marry Almerio a commoner of illegitimate birth who rescued Francesco from a tiger pit. During retreat at Convent of Daphne in Gismonda’s aria Dit-elle vrai?…La paix du cloître Gens sings with majestic vocal control exhorting with intense emotion that taking the veil would never attract her. Commencing with the tolling of the Angelus bell at Convent of Daphne here Février has provided a lovely cello solo and some excellent woodwind figures. On this evidence Février’s collection of operas might prove worthy of reassessment.
Saint-Saëns is represented here by an aria from his grand opera Étienne Marcel set in mid-fourteenth century Paris. Featuring Marcel Provost of Paris who with his fellow merchants revolt against the Dauphin demanding political reform there is a shadowy scenario infused with mistrust, intrigue and plotting. Marcel’s daughter Béatrix laments being separated from her lover Squire Robert de Loris with a beautifully melodic aria Ah ! Laissez-moi, ma mère!… Ô beaux rêves évanouis! and Gens doesn’t disappoint, displaying remarkable technical facility together with her attractive and splendidly sustained line. Saint-Saëns wrote twelve operas with only Samson et Dalila hanging onto a place towards the edge of the repertory. If this aria from Étienne Marcel is anything to go by one wonders how many other gems lay undiscovered in his other neglected operas. A prolific opera composer Fromental Halévy is known by a single work the grand opera La Juive whose première in Paris was a triumph for the composer an opera that served as a keystone of the genre for a century in France. Here Halévy is represented by an aria from another grand opera La Magicienne his last complete opera which was premièred over twenty years later than La Juive. Set in the High Middle Ages in the Poitiers region of France La magicienne is loosely based on the legend of Melusine a female spirit of fresh water who has magical powers. Here the supernatural powers of sorceress Mélusine, the Countess of Lusignan, derive not from her ancestry as the daughter of a fairy but from a Faustian-like pact pledging her soul to the devil. Blanche the young Countess of Poitou is in the Count’s château excitedly waiting for her fiancé Viscount René to return from the crusades. Mélusine persuades René that Blanche has been unfaithful to him. With René refusing to marry her, the Countess decides to enter a convent. In Blanche’s aria, Ce sentier nous conduit vers le couvent voisin… Je vais au cloître solitaire, striking in Gen’s performance is the contrast she creates between tenderness and high drama exhibiting accomplished control of her top notes.
A French vocal music specialist, Hervé Niquet assuredly directs the outstanding Münchner Rundfunkorchester with elegance admirably capturing the mood and character of each aria plus the short orchestral piece Le dernier sommeil de la Vierge from Massenet’s La Vierge. Recorded in the studios of Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich the sound clarity is adequate without being exceptional with a satisfying balance between singer and orchestra. The good news is the accompanying booklet includes sung French texts together with English translations. My grumbles refer to other aspects of the presentational content. Serving as an introduction the essay titled Visions by musicologist Alexandre Dratwicki neglects to provide any real information on the composers most of whom are anything but household names and some information about each aria in its context in the opera/oratorio/cantata would have been most welcome. Additionally the playing time of just under fifty-six minutes is relatively short by today’s standards.
With Véronique Gens in quite sensational form this is an eminently desirable album of rarely heard French arias. Fingers crossed for a further volume! Michael Cookson
Contents 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 (1880): 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] César FRANCK Rédemption (1874): Air de l’Archange - Le flot se lève [03.17]