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Elle: French Opera Arias
Marina Rebeka (soprano)
Sinfonieorchester St Gallen/Michael Balke
rec. 2019, Tonhalle St. Gallen, Switzerland
Texts included

A check of Marina Rebeka’s past schedule in the opera house reveals predominantly standard Romantic Italian opera. A graduate of the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia, Rome in 2007 Rebeka, a noted Verdian, was especially celebrated for her Violetta (La traviata). In addition, Rebeka is in much demand as a leading performer of Rossini and Mozart. Driven by a desire to pursue a broader repertoire the Latvian soprano has formed her own independent label Prima Classic allowing her the autonomy to record the repertoire she desires and feels appropriate for her voice.

It was at the 2009 Salzburg Festival under maestro Riccardo Muti when Rebeka came to prominence as Anaï in Rossini’s Moïse et Pharaon. Riga born, the soprano has become a regular visitor to the recording studio appearing on several albums including four solo albums. Rebeka’s 2013 solo recital album of arias by ‘Mozart’ heroines on Warner was generally well received and in 2017 I enjoyed ‘Amor Fatale’ her album of dramatic arias from Rossini’s lesser known operas on BR-Klassik. For ‘Spirito’ her 2018 debut album for Prima Classic Rebeka chose a programme of bel canto arias mainly Bellini and Donizetti.

Having sung several roles in French repertoire now with ‘Elle’ (‘She’) her fourth and latest solo album, Rebeka has chosen arias from five French composers, there are ten different roles and thirteen arias in total. This weighty selection including many great soprano arias is, according to the promotional note for the album, designed to display the ‘emotional spectrum’ of heroine roles in French Romantic Opera. On stage Rebeka has already performed three of the leading French roles whose arias feature on the album, namely Marguerite (Faust), Thaïs (Thaïs) and Juliette (Roméo et Juliette). In an interview given for the release of this album Rebeka expressed an aspiration to sing the title roles in Charpentier’s Louise, Massenet’s Manon and Bizet’s Carmen.

One senses Rebeka’s fastidious preparation in this French repertoire providing confident and impressively insightful performances. Her smooth delivery, full expressive voice which savours the vocal sweep and gift for generating drama are all invaluable attributes for Rebeka in this style of Romantic opera. Although by no means off-putting, the character of Rebeka’s voice has a steely quality that comes at the expense of some tonal coloration. Rebeka can jump or slide almost effortlessly up to her high register with her voice narrowing and when really pushed hard this results in some strain, consequently there is a slight lessening of refinement and appeal. Although not a native French speaker Rebeka seems well suited to these Romantic arias, her interpretations profit from clear enunciation and she deals effectively with the technical and emotional challenges. There are several tracks on this splendid album which are especially striking and worthy of comment.

From Charpentier’s Louise in the Act 3 aria Depuis le jour où je me suis donnée (Since the day I gave myself) Rebeka conveys beautiful tender singing as Louise warmly rejoices in her love for Julien and her wonderful life. Striking is the soprano’s silky smooth, steady voice production in her low to mid range. Confident glides to her top register reveal her confidence in this area of her voice, although when strained her tone can lose a little of its allure. Taken from Gounod’s masterpiece Faust is Marguerite’s renowned Act 3 aria Ah! Je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir (Ah! I laugh to see myself so beautiful in this mirror). Rebeka persuasively and sweetly conveys Marguerite’s sense of elation at discovering the box of jewels and how beautiful she must now look to Faust. As this challenging aria draws to a close the high section is impressively rendered by the soprano resulting in a thrilling conclusion.

Rebeka’s stand out performance is Thaïs’ short Act 3 aria O messager de Dieu (Oh messenger of God) from Massenet Thaïs. Here Egyptian courtesan Thaïs is forced as a penance to walk through the desert to an oasis where there is a nunnery. She is exhausted and dehydrated yet her soul is uplifted with joy. Rebeka equips herself extremely well as the eponymous heroine with such quickly shifting emotion ranging from exquisitely tender to emotionally dramatic, yet always maintaining an unwavering sincerity. From Gounod's Roméo et Juliette is Juliette’s Act 4 aria Dieu! Quel frisson... Amour ranime mon courage (God! What excitement… Love revive my courage). In this famous scenario Juliette, as part of her plan, is attempting to avoid marrying Paris by drinking a potion to make her appear dead then to wake up and marry Romeo. Certainly, Rebeka throws herself into the character, and notwithstanding some strain and rough edges, resulting in a most thrilling performance overflowing with emotion.

Well managed, under its principal guest conductor Michael Balke, the Sinfonieorchester St. Gallen gives an alert and effective performance. Ideally the orchestra might have provided richer orchestral colour and additional punch especially in the more dramatic passages. Successfully recorded at Tonhalle St. Gallen, Switzerland sound engineer Edgardo Vertanessian (Rebeka’s husband) has provided satisfying clarity with impressive balance between voice and orchestra. It is pleasing to report that sung French texts with English translations are provided in the booklet. Conversely there is no essay, only short biographies of the soloist, orchestra and conductor. With this type of collection a short description of each aria, within the context of the opera, is always welcome and might be considered for future releases.

Soprano Marina Rebeka’s star shines brightly with ‘Elle’ her new album honouring the variety of women’s roles in French Romantic Opera.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Barnaby Rayfield

Gustave CHARPENTIER (1860-1956)
1. Louise - Depuis le jour où je me suis donnée
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
2. Hérodiade - Celui dont la parole… Il est doux, il est bon
3. Le Cid - De cet affreux combat... Pleurez, pleurez mes yeux
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
4. Faust - Ah! Je ris de me voir si belle
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
5. Carmen - Quand je vous aimerai?... L'amour est un oiseau rebelle
6. Les pêcheurs de perles - Me voilà seule dans la nuit... Comme autrefois
7. Manon - Allons! Il le faut!... Adieu, notre petite table
8. Roméo et Juliette - Ah! Je veux vivre
9. Thaïs - Ah, je suis seule... Dis-moi que je suis belle
10. Faust - Elles ne sont plus là… Il ne revient pas
11. Thaïs - O messager de Dieu
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
12. L'enfant prodigue - L’année, envain chasse l’année... Azaël! Azaël!
13. Roméo et Juliette - Dieu! Quel frisson... Amour ranime mon courage

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