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

Had Marina Rebeka been born thirty years earlier, I feel sure she would have a number of studio opera recordings to her name. This excellent Latvian soprano first came onto my radar as a soloist on Antonio Pappano's EMI set of Rossini's Petite Messe Solenelle and her vibrant yet clean, individual sound made its mark. Alas, the odd vocal album and live DVD are the slim pickings that opera stars get today. In fact, Rebeka has had to go one further and set up her own label even to get out a recital. I personally feel that Prima Classic didn't need to record yet another La Traviata, but her other albums have been an admirable, self-starting way to form any sort of recording career and although there are no complete surprises on Elle, her new disc of Romantic French opera, she has cleverly mixed in some lesser-known plums.

We start with Depuis le jour, the one big hit from Charpentier’s Louise. Often this ecstatic outpouring of young love is dragged out for the vanity of displaying a singer's superior breath control, so it is reassuring to hear it delivered so flowingly, with keen tone and savouring of the rather purple-prose libretto. Likewise, her vibrant approach to Massenet cuts through the rich orchestration and makes a lie of his music being syrupy. From the ludicrous but wonderful Hérodiade, Salomé's Act 1 aria of yearning for John the Baptist is suitably perfumed and decadent. Creating a very different mood, the heartfelt Act 3 lament from Le Cid, sung by Chimène, in tears for still loving the murderer of her father, is beautifully phrased and poignant without exaggeration.

On to better-known territory, her Habanera from Carmen is intensely expressive but I don't see the role as a natural fit for this soprano and I detect some Callas quirks and mannerisms when Rebeka forces her tone. I would have rather seen her dig in to the usually drippy role of Micaëla. She certainly makes a great deal of Leila from Bizet's Les Pêcheurs des perles with the 2nd Act aria given real edge as well as serene beauty. Similarly, Manon's rather dull aria “Adieu, notre petite table” comes up as fresh as a daisy, more urgent and expressive than usual, with Rebeka finding the right inner quality of this materialistic, infuriating young girl.  Again, it is her savouring of the text that marks this album out from all the rather faceless, if pretty, singing, which is a feature of so many young singers' recital albums. Although stylistically fitting, Debussy is the odd-one-out here, with Lia's aria from the cantata, L'enfant prodigue, her lament at her son's absence, balefully done.

Three operas have two arias given to them throughout the album. Rebeka was hugely impressive on a Salzburg broadcast of Massenet's Thaïs and her experience shows here in both her main arias: shameless, vain and insecure as the beautiful courtesan in “Dis-moi que je sui belle” and finally penitent but at death's door in the desert with “O Messager de Dieu”. Admirable, too, are her two portraits of Faust's Marguerite, shallow but excitable in the Jewel Song and intense in her prison aria from Act 4, an aria less commonly found on recitals like this. My one basic quibble is that she has a very average trill but that eluded many of the Golden Age greats too. It is no surprise to find Juliet's waltz song from the same composer's Romeo et Juliette, not the four minutes of empty vocalism but a rapt, teenagery burst of energy and, again, how many albums like this end with Juliet's death scene? Her coloratura is nothing special, but Rebeka's dramatic intensity and forward diction are a joy to encounter and work in tandem with her distinctive timbre. Her vibrant soprano doesn't sound huge but it has a presence, a blade to ride these lush orchestrations. Her vibrato, for now, remains a shimmer rather than liability and, joy of joys, words mean a great deal to her. Her French diction is excellent throughout.

Rebeka has an interesting voice and I mean that as the highest compliment. Anyone who believes good singing begins and ends with producing a warm, even and creamy vocal line won't like this at all. The rest of us, who crave the expression and individuality of singers like Julia Varady, Pilar Lorengar, Ileana Cotrubas or even Maria Callas, will be hugely impressed with her second recital album for the label. Frustratingly, this does mean wanting her in complete sets like Thais, for instance. I doubt anyone else is planning to record it and if she picked rarer works, like Le Cid or any of the even more obscure Massenet and Bizet not sampled on her album, she would be doing the saturated recording industry a real service.

This is an esceptional recital of sumptuous late 19th century French opera. The mix of evergreens and lesser-known Massenet is logical and well laid out. Sound quality is predictably voice-biased but not distractingly so. There is good support from the Sinfonieorchester St Gallen, their flow and idiomatic use of rubato demonstrating that Michael Balke is not an indulgent Yes-man to the diva. Presentation from this little label is excellent, with texts in both French and English. You have to be good to stick out from the conveyor belt of singer recitals and their overlapping repertoire but this is a keeper.

Barnaby Rayfield

Gustave CHARPENTIER (1860-1956)
1 Louise, Act 3: Depuis le jour où je me suis donnée [5:26]   
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
2 Hérodiade, Act 1: Celui dont la parole… Il est doux, il est bon [5:39]  
3 Le Cid, Act 3: De cet affreux combat... Pleurez, pleurez mes yeux [6:25]  
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893) 
4 Faust, Act 2: Les grands seigneurs... Ah! Je ris de me voir si belle [6:16]   
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
5 Carmen, Act 1: Quand je vous aimerai?... L'amour est un oiseau rebelle [5:08]   
Georges BIZET
6 Les pêcheurs de perles, Act 2: Me voilà seule dans la nuit... Comme autrefois [7:26]  
7 Manon, Act 2: Allons! Il le faut!... Adieu, notre petite table [4:29]
Charles GOUNOD
8 Roméo et Juliette, Act 1: Ah! Je veux vivre [3:44]
9 Thaïs, Act 2: Ah, je suis seule... Dis-moi que je suis belle [7:03]
Charles GOUNOD
10 Faust, Act 3: Elles ne sont plus là… Il ne revient pas [7:17]  
11 Thaïs, Act 3: O messager de Dieu [2:35]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
12 L'enfant prodigue: L’année, envain chasse l’année... Azaël! Azaël! [5:27]
Charles GOUNOD
13 Roméo et Juliette, Act 4: Dieu! Quel frisson... Amour ranime mon courage [5:34]

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