Golden apple

Paris can be a lot to handle, but this week it was a lot to Handel.  

Sure, there are those daily brushes with brusqueness here in the City of Light, but where else can one hop on the Metro Line 1 and escape reality with not one, but two nights of inspired Handel singing at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. It is difficult to imagine any basis for comparing French contralto/conductor Nathalie Stutzmann with Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva, yet they share an evident passion for the music of Handel and for collaboration with accomplished and game Baroque musicians.

Julia Lezhneva is 24 years old, three years into an exclusive Decca recording contract and singing in all the great halls of Europe and beyond. At a time when we are blessed with so many  masterful and adventurous Baroque singers—Cecilia Bartoli and Joyce DiDonato among them—what explains the meteoric rise of Ms. Lezhneva?

Her sweet demeanour and pastel-coloured dresses are deceiving. She is a fiercely committed singer with impeccable technique. Some have criticized her for a perceived lack of dramatic connection to her lyrics, yet this will likely change as Ms. Lezhneva deepens her knowledge of the operas themselves and their languages, not to mention her own reservoir of life experiences and associated emotions.

Ms. Lezhneva teamed up with the superb Il Pomo d’Oro ensemble and violinist/conductor Dmitry Sinkovsky who surprised everyone by joining the soprano for two duets in his other guise as a countertenor.

After a delightful curtain-raiser by Telemann—one of several short violin concertos featuring Mr. Sinkovsky—Ms. Lezhneva plunged right into challenging coloratura with “Pugneran con noi le stelle” from Handel’s Rodrigo followed by the contemplative, “Per dar pregio” from the same opera. The voice is rather fascinating—the palette of colours is limited but the core tone is superb, full, perfectly-placed “bite-the-apple” singing. There is purity mixed with vitality, expressiveness and, consistent with the soprano’s relaxed, smiling presence onstage, sureness.

Handel’s Salve Regina hymn was suitably focused and spiritual, and perhaps the best fit for Lezhneva’s even legato, while arias from the composer’s first oratorio, l Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, left me thinking it is is finally time to make “Un pensiero nemico di pace” my ringtone and alarm clock. The latter aria was dispatched with particular aplomb and baffling ease, with a contrasting largo middle section that allowed Lezhneva to demonstrate her impressive breath control.

The second half began with Vivaldi’s violin concerto in B minor—Sinkovsky, especially impressive here as soloist—followed by Lezhneva singing “Zeffiretti, che sussurrate,” from his opera, Ercole sul Termodonte. This piece seemed complex but not showy, and it required impressive work from the Il Pomo d’Oro musicians—the superb cellos in particular—as well as Sinkovsky’s first, brief outing as an well-trained countertenor. There was also an aria from Handel’s Apollo e Dafne, though the performance was less memorable than the rest of the offerings.

The Paris audience gave Lezhneva an overwhelming ovation, responding not just to her vocal pyrotechnics but also to her warmth and evident passion for Handel’s youthful output. Encores included the final reconciliation duet from Tamerlano alongside the sensitive Sinkovsky, as well as “Lascia ch’io pianga,” from Il trionfo del tempo, which Lezhneva performed beautifully with lute accompaniment, while the rest of the musicians retreated to the back of the stage and watched, seemingly as transfixed as the audience.

This performance was greeted with shouts of, “And now…’Lascia ch’io pianga’,” referencing the more popular aria that uses the same melody. Alas the spontaneous request was not fulfilled (unlike life, this ain’t cabaret, after all) and the concert ended at that point, but certainly this is not the last we shall hear of Julia Lezhneva. She is the real deal.

By virtue of being a true contralto, Nathalie Stutzmann has already carved herself quite a niche. Yet she is a consummate musician, having also studied piano, bassoon, chamber music and conducting. After perfecting her conducting skills with the help of Seiji Ozawa and Simon Rattle, Stutzmann realized a dream and founded her own chamber orchestra, Orfeo 55 in 2009.

On Friday night at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, audience members seemed enchanted by her seamless multitasking as both conductor and soloist, and by the highly noticeable rapport between her and the musicians.

The programme drew primarily from her new album of Handel, Heroes from the Shadows, which showcases memorable arias sung by forgettable characters, unsung heroes who emerge from the “shadows” and delight audiences for a few moments before disappearing.

All of this music was new to me and I found Stutzmann’s rich voice gave these pieces unexpected depth. However, the voice is not tremendously large—there’s no spinto ‘ping’ to shoot the sound to the back of the hall—but fortunately I was able to relocate to the front row during the second half.

The aria I found most memorable was “Son contenta di morire” from Radamisto, to which Stutzmann dedicated equal energy as both soloist and conductor. The cellos were particularly engaging and the rhythms were crisp. There was also some impressive, full-bodied coloratura in “Dover, Giustizia, amor” from Ariodante. Orfeo 55 shone in excerpts from Handel’s expressive Concerto grossi.

All evening, Stutzmann managed the feat of maintaining supreme control, without sacrificing an ounce of humility. She insisted on having all of the Orfeo 55 musicians join her in a long line at the front of the stage for the final curtain call. Stutzmann is not merely a gifted singer with a rare fach, but she is also a musical leader with an evident commitment to ensemble collaboration. Thank goodness she pursued her dreams of conducting, even after achieving major successes as a singer—which, by the way, is hard enough!

(The accomplished Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan has also pursued a similar path, but with more contemporary fare. She recently told the New York Times she wants to conduct Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and also said “Conducting is now 20 percent of my schedule… Eventually it will be 50-50, and then I will only conduct.” It will be interesting to see how these two gifted musicians and leaders shape the next phases of their careers.)

An audience member suggested I check out Stutzmann’s recording of Schubert’s masterwork, Wintereisse, and I certainly intend to.