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Divas merrily on high

Though Mission and Drama Queens may be receiving much of the attention of diva-lovers with holiday shopping lists, Cecilia Bartoli and Joyce DiDonato are not the only ladies who have recorded recitals this year featuring music from the 17th and 18th centuries.

In fact, 2012 has witnessed a near-avalanche of such CDs, many just out in the past several months. This first of two round-ups looks at new discs by Patricia Petibon, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Christiane Karg, Sandrine Piau and Véronique Gens.  

I’m afraid I’ve never quite understood the popularity of French soprano Petibon whose surprisingly extensive discography includes at least six solo CDs of which the latest is Nouveau Monde, just out from Deutsche Grammophon.

Accompanied by Andrea Marcon and La Cetraand no doubt inspired by her affection for Spanish musicPetibon’s newest is unfortunately all over the place. In addition to a salutary effort to present music written by Europeans who had traveled to the Americas during the 18th century (drawn from the Peruvian Codex Martínez Compañón), she also includes music by the wonderful José de Nebra and Handel (a section from his only cantata in Spanish).

Presumably trying to stay on concept, there are also extensive excerpts from Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes, some of which does take place in the “New World,” but why the bleeding chunks of Charpentier’s Médée? An aria from Purcell’s King Arthur? Greensleeves?

It all ends up a bizarre hodge-podge. If the singing had been consistently engaging then I might have been less disturbed by the odd programming, but Petibon’s wacky redhead shtick has rarely been enough to make up for her often wildly uneven singing.

To be sure, though, she was on her best behavior and quite appealing at her most recent NYC appearance as Minka in Chabrier’s Le Roi malgré lui with the American Symphony Orchestra in 2005.

Nouveau Monde’s simpler selections are often lovely, but the spirited Spanish numbers prompt her to overdo like a second-rate Charo. Her ill-advised stab at the sorceress Médée devolves into a little girl playing “dress-up.” The opening track, an entrancing zarzuela aria by de Nebra, begins promisingly but the da capo repeat disintegrates into an embarrassing collection of scoops and shriekswho could possibly have decided that this mess was the best way to begin the CD?

Her uneven “When I am Laid in Earth” from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (how did that get into this collection?) appears in one of the more bizarre music videos made to promote a classical music product. Perhaps Petibon’s more indulgent fans will look kindly on this venture, but it’s likely others will find much of it more satisfying as camp.

Québécois contralto Lemieux has had a very active recording career for most of the past decade, but her latest collection of arias by Mozart, Haydn, Gluck and Graun on Naïve isn’t her finest hour (or so).

Ably accompanied by Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy, Lemieux has put together an interesting group of arias that mostly bypasses the hackneyed—although Orfeo’s “Che faro” must have been inevitable, but why Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete?”  Yet it’s gratifying to discover selections from Haydn’s Il Ritorno di Tobia and L’Isola disabitata, Mozart’s La Betulia Liberata and Graun’s Montezuma; however, her plummy “Deh per questo istante solo” is far from my idea of a Mozart Sesto!

Unfortunately, as on her recent Orlando Furioso DVD, a lot of Lemieux’s singing has become increasingly blowsy. Her formerly warm, enveloping contralto now reveals a loosening vibrato which makes some of the items here downright unpleasant. The more meditative arias show her at her best, but when violent emotions are evoked, Lemieux inevitably errs on the side of the excessively melodramatic.

Yet I watched a recent telecast of Lemieux singing 17th century music with her frequent partner Philippe Jaroussky (whom she clearly adores and who appears to bring out the best in her) and she sounded grand, so perhaps all is not lost. Having enjoyed her singing in the past, I hope to do so again in the future, but these recent recordings have made that increasingly difficult.

And while Naïve has always been notorious for its oddball covers (all those strange ladies on its Vivaldi Edition), Lemieux’s represents a new low: she really should sue over that hideous portrait!

Young German soprano Karg’s new CD Amoretti for Berlin Classics also features arias by Mozart and Gluck, and like Lemieux’s her recital endeavors to avoid the obvious: the CD’s appealing title track Amoretti comes from Mozart’s La Finta Semplice, and the rare Gluck (Telemaco and Il Parnasso confuso) and the delightful Grétry bring credit to Karg and conductor Jonathan Cohen conducting his orchestra Arcangelo.

Despite her light lovely voice, Karg’s singing doesn’t yet evince much personality, so the march through these 14 arias can become a long slough. Elaborate coloratura is efficiently dispatched but without the élan to make it truly exciting.

Her dutiful traversal of Giunia’s splendidly dramatic Fra I pensieri from Mozart’s Lucia Silla brought to mind last year’s CD by Teodora Gheorghiu devoted to arias written for Anna de Amicis, the first Giunia. Like Karg, Gheorghiu has all the notes but not the dramatic imagination to bring her characters’ music to life.

Karg’s Italian and French sound efficiently coached but far from idiomatic (a notable deficit in the sprightly Grétry items), and unfortunately Cohen’s well-intentioned but bloodlessly sedate conducting only encourages Karg’s placidity, particularly in the marvelous “Lungi da te” from Mozart’s Mitridate with its fascinating horn obbligato which here just plods along.

All in all, Amoretti strikes me as a premature project. While one would be grateful to encounter Karg as Pamina or Zerlina in a smallish house, repeated listenings of the CD reveal a promising but as yet unfinished artist. However, Karg singing Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass at this summer’s Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center revealed a more full-bodied voice, a more confident manner, so perhaps some of the deficiencies exposed on this recording have already been addressed.

But “Je romps la chaïne qui m’engage” from Grétry’s L’Amant Jaloux—the opening track of Piau’s Le Triomphe de l’Amour—demonstrates precisely what is missing from Karg’s recital. Jérôme Correas’s spirited conducting of Les Paladins immediately springs from your speakers followed by Piau’s suavely confident attack bringing to vivid life this gem from the little-explored genre of early opera-comique.

The Grétry is just the beginning of this delightful tour through 17th and 18th French opera, indeed a triumphant return by Piau to the music with which she began her career.

During her rise to prominence in the early 90s, Piau was featured in many of the near-definitive recordings by William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants, particularly two Rameau masterpieces, Castor et Pollux and Les Indes galantes-in both of which she sparkled at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1993.

Yet after these early triumphs, Piau for the most part left behind French baroque–other than a brief return to Les Arts Florissants for its brilliantly irreverent production of Rameau’s wacky Les Paladins. In the meantime, she has evolved into an accomplished recitalist, a leading Mozartean (although Konstanze and Donna Anna were controversial choices) and one of today’s most eloquent Handel advocates, as her two remarkableprize-winning Naïve CDs illustrate.

While Piau’s voice has never been particularly plush and now the top notes no longer ring out as effortlessly as they once did, her sound today remains remarkably fresh and simiiar to what we first heard more than 20 years ago. One never feels any sense of routine— she’s always vitally present, conveying the composer’s music with an endearing lack of ego.

After that delicious Grétry romp, we visit turning points of sadness or joy for heroines by Lully, Rameau, Rebel-Francoeur, Sacchini (a particularly dazzling coloratura romp from Renaud) and for even one hero: in a preview of Charpentier’s David et Jonathas which Les Arts Florissants brings to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April, we get a most moving account of Jonathan’s wrenching “A-t-on jamais souffrant.”

Formerly a baritone who co-starred with Piau in those historic Rameau recordings, Correas has continued that collaboration since becoming an accomplished conductor whose group Les Paladins has made a number of very fine CDs. While many of these vocal recitals feature instrumental works (usually overtures) to break up the routine of aria after aria, most of the time those numbers are rarely more than time-fillers.

This is definitely not the case with Le Triomphe de l’Amour where Correas’s vibrant music-making (in full command of works spanning more than a century) matches Piau’s as he shares several scintillating pieces which please on their own merits.

Alongside Piau, French soprano Gens also rose to prominence with Les Arts Florissants. In fact it seems remarkable that she’s been on the scene now for over a quarter of a century having debuted while still a student in 1987 in the history-making revival and recording of Lully’s Atys. While she continues to sing pre-classical repertoire, more than Piau she has moved on to later music including celebrated recordings of Mozart, Berlioz and Canteloube.

Yet a remarkable three-volume survey on Virgin Classics of more than 200 years of French opera—Tragédiennes-may likely prove her most lasting recorded achievement. The third in the series, Les Héroïnes Romantiques, arrived earlier this year.

After a first volume which explored Lully to Gluck, the second traced Rameau to Berlioz; and now the third (and final?) volume begins with several late 18th century works (from operas by Gossec, Salieri and Méhul) while ultimately bringing us to Saint-Saëns and Massenet. I wonder if Gens imagined when doing the first disk in 2005 that she’d be recording Elisabeth’s “Toi qui sus le néant” from Verdi’s Don Carlos just a few years later?

Her superb collaborator, harpsichordist and conductor Christophe Rousset has always been keen to explore the mostly forgotten corners of the repertoire, and I presume he was responsible for exhuming the arias by little-known composers like Pancrace Royer to Sacchini, Kreutzer to Mermet that supplement the better known works throughout the series which significantly includes Gluck as the touchstone in each of the three volumes. His orchestra, “Les Talens Lyriques,” long one of the best period-instrument groups in the world, consistently shines as it moves from tragédie lyrique to some of the grandest of French grand operas.

It’s been fascinating to follow Gens’s maturation as an artist via this trio of CDs. Although she remains a rather cool, patrician artist, there have been new, intriguing flashes of temperament as Rousset has pushed her into the 19th century; however, it must be noted that for a francophone singer, she often does far less with the words than one might wish.

And while the top (never her glory) has shortened a bit as the years pass, the rich middle and lower part of the voice have filled out to the degree that she includes several arias usually taken by mezzos or even contraltos: Neris’s aria from Cherubini’s Médée in volume 2 while 3 features Fidès’s “Ah, mon fils” from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète!  One suspects, however, that there will be many listeners who will long for a fiercer dramatic commitment-particularly in the later 19th century arias-than Gens is able to summon.

Although several of these CDs are more recommendable than the othersPiau’s is a must with Gens’s most worthwhile, particularly in combination with the previous two, all five provide glimpses of artists who rarely appear in the US in either concert or opera. Unfortunately Piau will not be Jonathas in the upcoming Charpentier at BAM, and I believe that Piau (along with Lemieux and Karg) has never appeared in a staged opera in the United States. And Gens and Petibon have only appeared here in small parts in Les Arts Florissants productions at BAM at the very beginnings of their careersin 1989 and 1997, respectively.

Although it may be true enough that little of these ladies’s repertoires is regularly staged here, one has only to take a glimpse of a recent Vitellia of Gens (who triumphed just last month is a new production of Gluck’s Alceste at the Vienna Staatsoper) to discover just how much the MET’s recent uneven revival of La Clemenza di Tito could have profited from her presence:

And we’ll get a chance to see what Petibon makes of a role from the standard repertoire when she undertakes Gilda in the Bavarian State Opera’s new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto which will be live streamed from Munich on December 30.

44 comments

  • papopera says:

    The death of the great Galina Vishnevskaya has been announced today at 87.
    I saw her on stage during the Expo ’67 opera festival in Montréal but can’t remember if she was in War & Peace or The Queen of Spade. Unforgettable soprano.

  • Patrick Mack says:

    Magnificent review. extraordinarily well written and erudite. Bravo!

  • Constantine A. Papas says:

    Another exponent of notice of Baroque vocal music is mezzo Fedora Barbieri, who made her impact in the 40s and 50s. I hope she is not forgotten.

    • Nerva Nelli says:

      Is this a joke, Dr. Papas?

      Barbieri and Corelli slaughtering Handel’s music in Mascagni-worthy style is unforgiven and best forgotten.

  • Buster says:

    The Gens/Delunsch Iphigenie double feauture with Minkowski can be seen here for another day or two:

    http://ntrpodium.ntr.nl/page/archief/aflevering/15034728/ntr-podium-iphig-nie-en-aulide

    It was fascinating to see Gens first as the young Iphigenie, followed by the deeply moving Delunsch as the later one. Gens did everything with the voice. Delunsch was the real tragedienne -- singing through the flu and terrible backpains added eto the agony of the character. Unforgettable.

    • oedipe says:

      Thanks Buster, I was sorry I missed these productions.

      Though I am afraid most Parterrians have no use for deviant French operas interpreted by French singers such as Gens, who don’t equate great singing with loud-and-louder…

      • Hippolyte says:

        I think it’s a mistake to assume that “a majority” of Parterrians is represented by those who simply happen to squawk the most often.

        • oedipe says:

          Dunno. You may be right (or not). I base my conclusion on the loud and frequent protestations of those love loud singing. There is some overlap with those that hate baroque/French opera.

          • Hippolyte says:

            I’m aware of many people who religously read Parterre yet never (or rarely) post and who hold a wide variety of viewpoints on matters operatic. I guess I reject the concept that there’s a “party line” that everyone subscribes to: we all love Millo and hate Fleming, for example--or embrace Regie and reject Zeffirelli, etc. I therefore wish that sometimes there was more of a variety of opinions expressed rather than the monolith you probably accurately perceive.

          • oedipe says:

            Here is a little story I heard at a conference on Massenet (on the occasion of his little noticed centennial).

            The renowned French singer Lucien Fugère (1848-1935), much admired by Massenet in his time, was very opinionated about the art of singing. He considered that the most important aspects of singing are “articuler”, “dire”, and “être musical”, much more important than “donner de la voix” (i.e. singing loudly). He believed that to sing loudly is to sing badly. About his own singing he said: “Je chante comme je parle”. This approach to singing can still be found in graduates of French schools. But outside of France, French opera is generally sung as if it were Verdi or Wagner or verismo. Just take a look at the current Met Les Troyens, or last year’s Faust, or any number of other examples on many stages. The singing style Fugère talked about just ISN’T THERE in most instances these days.

            A striking example I came across recently was the moment in Robert Le Diable when Brian Hymel and Jean-François Borras, two lyric tenors, were singing back-to-back: Hymel was blasting off the high notes at the top of his voice, whereas Borras was all nuance and musicality. Still, Hymel is being presented by the ROH (and presumably by the Met in the not so distant future) as the “French” tenor!

            Obviously, singing as one speaks, the focus on the sound and meaning of the language is more important in French opera than in belcanto or Verdi. And loud singing is de rigeur in Wagner and verismo. But do these singing styles HAVE to invade French opera in order to make it more palatable to those who dislike it to begin with? And is a loud-singing audience pleaser really, truly better than a nuanced, idiomatic singer?

          • Camille says:

            Dear monsieur oedipe.

            The problem is: one cannot “dire” music in a language one does not speak, and many singers do not speak French,

            And this method will probably not work in the vast cavern of the Met.

            I was wistfully listening this a. m. to Georges Thill singing some of Les Troyens. It couldn’t have been bettered but would it have travelled into a huge auditorium? Would it have been heard within the confines of the Bastille whose acoustics are supposed to be bad?

            I don’t know the answer. It only makes me sad to contemplate.

          • Camille says:


            The magnificent M. Thill, whose name was reverentially invoked in the chTroom hier soir— amidst les débris de Giordani. Inutiles regrets, indeed.

          • oedipe says:

            Camille,

            I don’t know the answer to your question either, but I think it should at least be tried to see if it works, no?

          • Camille says:

            Mais oui!

            All for it, it is just that there is so much to counter—particularly these overly LARGE opera houses which have taken over the world, along with the rampant Wagnermania, which has tortured singers into ruining their voices and ruined a lot of other singing, in the bargain.

            Bigger is not always better.

  • Hippolyte says:

    Mentioning the bald-headed, bare-chested bodybuilder who appears throughout (at least “Aulide,” as I haven’t yet seen Tauride) might prompt more curious viewers.

    • Buster says:

      Tauride follows next week.

      • Camille says:

        Buster, I have tried and tried and tried to get that Nederlandse Oper thing to play, and I have been trying in my almost extinct nederlands, too. And I have not succeeded at all.

        Will it be playing through Sunday, maybe I can get my husband to help me to figure it out. I downloaded the Silverlight, and I tried to install it but I am hopeless with this stuff!!!!!! I have always wanted to hear/see Véronique Gens in her element, and to see the “other” Iphigénie, too.
        It is horrible to be so unsavvy about all this stuff!!!!! At least I still remember the word “kijk”!!

        Disgruntled Camille

  • Krunoslav says:

    Thanks, DeCaf, for this excellent survey.

    I’d be interested on hearing your response to the CD “PRIMA” DONNA by the fabulous Karina Gauvin, who to me sings the likes of Patricia Petibon into the ground, and is a much classier stylist than her canadienne consoeur Lemieux has become.

    • Clita del Toro says:

      kruno, I saw Gauvin here in Chicago a few years ago in a concert. She is a wonderful singer.

      • MontyNostry says:

        Gauvin is one of the best sopranos around. Lovely voice and a real communicator. (I have to confess, though, that Gens always disappoints me. It’s an attractive, if limited, voice, but she does suprisingly little with her native language.)

    • DeCaffarrelli says:

      Patience, cher Krunoslav, there is a second part to this survey which includes said CD by Gauvin, as well as “Dramma” by well-known Parterre nemesis Simone Kermes, among others.

  • This is so unbelievably refreshing and heartening to read a (formidable) review and discussion by opera buffs / pros which, for once, does not equate vocal artistry / greatness with vocal magnitude or altitude. I confess that hearing a big voice live is quite a sensation yet it is not everything to me (“she peeled the paint off the walls / he knocked me out with his top B flat” so f***ing what). And, once in a while, histrionics are not considered to be a manifestation of great artistic / musical personality, or artistic commitment (“she scorched the stage”). And it is very encouraging to read so many warm responses to Veronique Gens’ unique voice and personality. Yes, she may have chosen a bit unwisely at times and I’m not sure the Meyerbeer aria on the present recital is really persuasive (it really needs more of the Horne / Schumann-Heink mettle) but her Elisabeth de Valois was certainly different, unique and quite personal, not another faceless international voice going through the thing. Orchestral contribution had a lot to do with the uniqueness but it is all of a piece, voice and instruments communicating and inhabiting the same soundscape. No it wasn’t technically ‘perfect’, nor, I fear, will it penetrate through most of our modern opera barns. Who cares? Most 19th century music wasn’t conceived for such gigantic halls anyway, and the orchestral sound-palette was different.