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Béatrice Uria-Monzon (soprano)
Orchestra of Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi di Trieste/Fabrizio Maria Carminati
Full sung texts with English translations
rec. June 2019, Teatro Verdi de Trieste, Italy; October 2019, Église luthérienne Saint-Pierre, Paris, France
APARTÉ AP221 [59:00]

'Assoluta' is Béatrice Uria-Monzon’s first recital album and is a collection of eleven Italian opera arias of great assoluta roles by seven composers: Cilea, Puccini, Mascagni, Giordano, Ponchielli, Bellini and Verdi. Verdi and Puccini are represented by three arias each, while the other composers have each a single aria.

The album sleeve notes tell us that the term ‘assoluta’ refers to a prima donna who sang the dramatic role of great tragic heroines and describes the assoluta voice as ‘characterised by a dark timbre...with a rich, strong low register and the high notes of a soprano.’ Musicologist and specialist opera author Geoffrey S. Riggs explains that “the assoluta’s heyday" was the first half of the nineteenth century. This was the time when stylistic complexities of bel canto coalesce with the broad emotions of the romantic era, often in a valiant way that offered an environment where the assoluta voice could flourish.

Examples of legendary assoluta exponents from those glory years include the famous divas Giuditta Pasta (1797-1865), Giulia Grisi (1811-1869) and Giuseppina Strepponi (1815-1897). In more recent memory, a renowned performer of assoluta roles was the soprano Maria Callas (1923-77) whose performing career spanned 1941-65. Riggs cites several examples of great assoluta opera roles, including the eponymous title roles in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Bellini’s Norma, both created by Giuditta Pasta. Surely the most famous assoluta aria is Casta Diva (Chaste Goddess) from Bellini’s Norma; another lesser-known example he gives is Reiza’s aria Ozean, du Ungeheuer (Ocean, thou mighty monster) from Weber’s Oberon.

Uria-Monzon is a product of the University of Bordeaux, the Conservatoire de Bordeaux, the Centre National d'Insertion Professionnelle d'Artistes Lyriques, Marseille and the École d'art lyrique de l'opéra de Paris. Starting her career over thirty years ago in 1987 as a mezzo-soprano, she received praise for her French-language heroines, conspicuously the title role in Carmen, her signature role, and other notable roles such as Didon (Les Troyens), the title role in Hérodiade (Massenet), Charlotte (Werther), Mother Marie (Dialogues des Carmélites). She then started to sing the soprano repertoire including Marguerite (Faust), Chimène (Le Cid, Massenet) and in 2012 she sang the title role in Tosca; on this album she now describes herself as a soprano. This collection of Italian arias demonstrate that Uria-Monzon has become less dependent on French roles in the opera house by taking on a wider and heavier repertoire from Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni, Bellini, Donizetti and some Wagner, too, as Venus in Tannhaüser.

Standing out is the renowned aria Vissi d'arte from Tosca. Uria-Monzon seems to connect closely with the role; the aria provides a fine example of her dark, smoky tone and her rapid slide up to her highest notes is most effective. She is able to manage the unwieldly aspect of her substantial voice which unsurprisingly can result in a lessening of nuance in her tone. Of today’s sopranos, Angela Gheorghiu in her signature role is the greatest exponent I know of Tosca’s Vissi d'arte. At two separate stagings of Tosca I have reported on her performing the role in Berlin and Dresden and in studio recordings, too, where she sings with assurance, rare beauty and total engagement.

Uria-Monzon next tackles Voi lo sapete, O mamma from Cavalleria Rusticana. As Santuzza the wretched Sicilian peasant girl, Uria-Monzon develops a stirring level of passion as she relates her sad story to Mamma Lucia of how Turiddu has left her disgraced and abandoned. She then sings Casta Diva from Norma, in which the eponymous heroine sings serenely but is subsequently shown to be in total turmoil, torn by the constraints of religion and forbidden love. She handles the daunting challenges of the druid high priestess’ aria proficiently and with intimacy; nonetheless, the highest notes push her to the limit resulting in a slightly unsteady tone which borders on the screechy. In addition, I feel her coloratura is variable in appeal. It would be remiss not to mention the flute solo which is beautifully played.

The assoluta soprano is not a voice that I encounter too often and Uria-Monzon’s sizable voice does take some time to get used to. When first playing this album, I thought her vibrato would be a potential concern, yet after repeated hearings I find this aspect of her voice to be barely an issue. Certainly, I am pleased to have persevered with 'Assoluta' and am now reaping the benefits of this engaging album. In truth, I would not describe Uria-Monzon as having the most beautiful voice around today and there is some unsteadiness, but make no mistake, it is generous and highly effective in this repertoire.

The playing of the Orchestra of Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi di Trieste under conductor Fabrizio Maria Carminati is especially impressive, shining bright in repertoire it clearly relishes, and there are some lovely solo contributions from the orchestra principals. The sound recordists and production company Little Tribeca has recorded the album at 24bit-96kHz, achieving first-class engineering, with a particularly impressive balance between soloist and orchestra. The booklet essay is disappointing; it uses plenty of words but gives little of the information I wanted. By way of consolation, Aparté is to be congratulated for providing full sung texts with English translations alongside.

I know from my own experience how tempting it is to rely on recordings of opera recital collections from renowned performers from the past, but listening to Uria-Monzon’s first solo recital of many great assoluta arias is a delight. 'Assoluta' is certainly an album opera enthusiasts might wish to explore.

Michael Cookson

Francesco CILEA (1866-1950)
Adriana Lecouvreur
1. Io son l'umile ancella [3:23]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
2. Vissi d'arte [3:18]
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria rusticana
3. Voi lo sapete o mamma [3:28]
Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Andrea Chénier
4. La mamma morta [5:10]
Manon Lescaut
5. Sola, perduta, abbandonata [4:56]
Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834-1886)
La Gioconda
6. Suicidio! [3:58]
Suor Angelica
7. Senza mamma, o bimbo [4:52]
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
8. Casta Diva [6:36]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
9. Nel dì della vittoria... Vieni t'affretta! [7:26]
10. Una macchia è qui tuttora! [9:57]
La forza del destino
11. Pace, pace mio Dio! [5:14]

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