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Femmes Fatales - Soprano Heroines from the Orient
Seljan Nasibli (soprano)
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Yalchin Adigezalov
rec. 2017, Great Concert Studio of the National Radio Company of Ukraine
Sung texts can be accessed online.
NAXOS 8.579066 [65:21]

Seljan Nasibli studied at the Royal College of Music and in Oxford but she originally comes from Baku in Azerbaijan, and in her foreword to this issue she writes: “Although all these heroines are from the Orient, the issues they face are the difficulties of every woman around the world today. I believe these composers have chosen Oriental women because of their exoticism and mysticism. Being originally from the junction of Europe and Asia, my heart is within this music and with these Eastern women. I identify with this music, and through it, to these heroines.”

The resulting CD has become a conglomerate of nationalities, languages and times, reaching back to the Trojan War and musically depicted as late as the early 1960s by an American composer. Sung in French, English, Polish, Russian and Italian these songs and arias are inspired by Ceylon, Egypt, China and various other real and fairy-tale countries – this is indeed world music in the best sense of the word.

It is a brave undertaking of Seljan Nasibli who here confronts music of widely different styles and technical requirements. She is also up against formidable competition, but in a way she has a great advantage: there is, to my knowledge, no similar compilation on the market.

The opening is enticing. Ravel’s cycle Shéhérazade takes us to a world filled with hazy water colours, fragrancies and shapeless beings without contours – it is a dreamscape and very much his own. The orchestra catches this well and Seljan Nasibli is both nuanced and expressive. Her rather vibrant tone robs, however, the music of the dreaminess that for instance Regine Crespin with her creamier sound conjures forth so marvellously. Still it is a valid reading in its own right but not so magical.

Samuel Barber’s Andromache’s Farewell is quite the opposite to Ravel: distinct contours, resolute rhythms and razor-sharp colours. The horrible text is from Euripides’s The Trojan Women, in an English translation that Barber commissioned from John Creagh. The composition, more a scene than a song, was a commission by the New York Philharmonic. They premiered it in 1963 with Thomas Schippers conducting and Martina Arroyo as soloist. In the score Barber wrote: “Scene: an open space before Troy, which has just been captured by the Greeks. All Trojan men have been killed or have fled and the women and children are held captives. Each Trojan woman has been allotted to a Greek warrior and the ships are now ready to take them into exile. Andromache, widow of Hector, Prince of Troy, has been given as a slave-wife to the son of Achilles. She has just been told that she cannot take her little son with her in the ship. For it has been decreed by the Greeks that a hero’s son must not be allowed to live and that he is to be hurled over the battlement of Troy. She bids him farewell. In the background the city is slowly burning. It is just before dawn.” This is a monologue for a well-equipped dramatic soprano and Seljan Nasibli is admirable here, expressive and unflinching in the dramatic scenes, notably the final pages.

With Léïla’s aria from Les Pêcheurs de perles we take a gigantic leap almost exactly one century backwards in time. But it is also a leap to another voice category. Light lyric sopranos like Pierrette Alarie and Rita Streich have made memorable recordings and the aria is one of Bizet’s most beautiful. Ms Nasibli is not quite in their class but does a good job even so. I notice here, more than in the previous numbers, that on sustained notes she develops a beat in the voice – not a wobble as yet but it could be a sign that she should be aware of some wear.

The least known music on this disc is Szymanowski’s Songs of a Fairy-Tale Princess. The texts were written by his sister Zofia and she was also the dedicatee of the songs in 1915. Much later, in 1933, he made orchestral versions of four of the songs, and three are heard here. The tessitura is high in all three and both The Nightingale and Dance are to a great extent vocalises. The fast and intense Dance is possibly the highlight and she sings with considerable verve.

Unfortunately the well-known Hymn to the Sun from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel causes her a lot of strain. She has the top notes all right but the tone becomes shrill above the stave.

Liù’s arias from Turandot are not quite her cup of tea either. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with them but they don’t ignite. I would also have wanted them in chronological order.

The concluding aria from Thaïs is much better. There her involvement is more genuine and even though the lowest notes are a bit lacklustre this is a good reading.

The playing of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine is good and the recording cannot be faulted. Sung texts with English translations are available online but unfortunately only to Les Pêcheurs de perles, The Golden Cockerel and Thaïs.
Even though I have vented a few misgivings the programme is attractive and without odious comparisons this disc can give a lot of pleasure.

Göran Forsling

Maurice RAVEL (1875 – 1937)
Shéhérazade (1903) [17:57]
1. Asie [10:31]
2. La Flûte enchantée [3:14]
3. L’Indifférent [4:10]
Samuel BARBER (1910 – 1981)
4. Andromache’s Farewell (1962) [13:00]
Georges BIZET (1838 – 1875)
Les Pêcheurs de perles (1863):
5. Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre [6:44]
Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882 – 1937)
Pieśni księżniczki z baśni (Songs of a Fairy-Tale Princess) (1915 / 1933) [9:31]
6. I. Samotny księżyc (The Solitary Moon) [4:36]
7. ii. Slowik (The Nightingale) [2:54]
8. IV. Taniec (Dance) [2:00]
Nikolay Andreyevich RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844 – 1908)
Le Coq d’or (The Golden Cockerel) (1909):
9. Hymn to the Sun [5:06]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
Turandot (1924) [6:10]
10. Tu che di gel sei cinta [3:19]
11. Signore, ascolta! [2:50]
Jules MASSENET (1842 – 1912)
Thaïs (1898)
12. Dis-moi que je suis belle [6:47]



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