Cher Public

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.


  • Hippolyte

    It’s interesting to read a different perspective on Lezhneva, as several friends and I continue to be gravely disappointed by her. Surely she has great gifts but they are continually compromised by her always superficial connection to the text and music. The timbre is soprano-ish but the top of the voice is a mess. She’s very young so perhaps we’re expecting too much but I question if she should already be doing major solo concerts and prominent recordings.

  • La marquise de Merteuil

    I agree with Hippolyte -- no connection to text which makes all the fireworks a boring display. The voice itself is like a turbo-charged sexually confused boy soprano and the top of the voice is squeezed and pinched and quite frankly fugly. If there was a connection to the text these could be overlooked. She falls into the “who cares?” category for me.

    • MontyNostry

      Lezhneva’s singing isn’t to my taste either, but I can see that she will appeal to people who like cool singers with little vibrato. I saw her in a competition some years ago and the thing I liked best by far was her ‘Deh, vieni’, which was really exquisite, without that tubular thing going on!

  • I love this girl! Seen her live twice and I was completely blown away. She will be my new favorite when Cecilia stops singing :)

  • Milady DeWinter

    Yes, I too am of undecided status regarding Lezhneva and her troublesome top. I recall that her debut album, not so long ago, received equal parts pan and plaudit, and that the repertoire itself was of Colbran/ extended mezzo-ish nature.
    On the other hand, thanks for your excellent review. OT: Wasn’t Dessay set to do some Brahms lieder at Elysee yesterday afternoon, and, are you going to the concert reading of Massenet’s ‘Cleopatre’ with Sopihe Koch tomorrow evening? Please let us know if you do!

    • Adam Moscoe

      Yes! I shall be at the “Cleopatre” tonight. Will let you know! I understand it is a benefit concert for youth of some sort….Ludovic Telzier pulled out.

      • MontyNostry

        That’s a shame. It’s a good thing I didn’t make a special trip to Paris to see it -- I’d vaguely considered doing so. One of the main reasons would have been to see Tézier.

        • Adam Moscoe

          A rather interesting night — will put out a review soon. But you should know Koch was, I thought, totally on her game. At intermission a lady described Goncalves as a “catastrophe.” Though at least the show could go on. But Plasson was wonderful in the pit AND the audience couldn’t get enough of tenor Benjamin Bernheim as Spakos. He was essentially perfect — just wish the role had been longer.

          • MontyNostry

            As Concepción would sing … “Gonvcalves, Goncalves, Goncalves …” What a shame Tézier cancelled -- maybe it had something to do with his being ill during the recent run of Tosca.

            • Adam Moscoe

              perhaps. By “in the pit”…I mean on stage…

          • MontyNostry

            Here’s Benjamin. The guttural r’s do bother me, though!

            • Adam Moscoe

              He was way smoother tonight than this…. these outdoor amphitheatre things never bring out the best…

      • Ouf

        Hopefully he sang at the Mulhouse performance the other day.

        • Ouf

          The guy replacing him, Goncalves, sang in the Botstein “Roi malgré lui” at Annandale-on-Hudson and last year in “Mârouf” in Paris. May be OK.

        • Ouf

          Seems Plasson promoted the Ennius to Marc-Antoine, the Sévérus to Ennius, and made the Amnhès sing Sévérus as well.

    • Adam Moscoe

      Essay did a programme of excerpts from Giulio Cesare -- sorry to have missed out.

      • manou

        Is Essay Natalie decapitated?

        • Regina delle fate

          Maybe she’s lost her high D just as Mingo has lost his Do….

      • Milady DeWinter

        Thanks for your quick call on Cleopatre -- I look forward to reading more about it.
        Too bad about the great (imo) Tezier , so good that Mme. Koch was in form, but it does take the edge off what is really a score driven by the performers’ style and charisma, since I have yet to unpack a whole lot of memorable music from it. But maybe it’s me.
        Oor Essay Ecapitated.
        Was sort of surprised (but also glad) when I saw that program listed.

    • Adam Moscoe
  • Guestoria Unpopularenka

    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….what explains the meteoric rise of Ms. Lezhneva?

    You first sentence explains the last. The question is why she was given such a contract in the 1st place. Obviously, she was groomed to be a “pop” star in the operatic world.

    Though, she’s neither a remarkable talent, nor looks good. So, I wonder what the real reasons for being chosen were.

    • I think she has tons of talent, especially for a 24 year old! And she is one of the most cute looking girls I’ve ever seen.

    • Bluevicks

      A rather strange comment considering that easy-on-the-eyes artistic non entities such as De Niese managed to appear in important productions and still have a career going.

      Yet, it is Lezhneva’ success which is seen as a problem, even if she is in another class in terms of singing altogether.

      • armerjacquino

        De Niese can act and sing. Her voice isn’t a particularly beautiful one but it’s just daft to call her an artistic nonentity.

        • Bluevicks

          De Niese can act ? She is one of the most self centered phony performers on stage today. I have never seen her having any meaningful interaction with her colleagues on stage and her begging for attention antics in almost every performance she is in is unbearable.

          She can sing, I can leave you that. But only in the strict sense that she is mostly in tune and that she tries to sing notes which are on the page. In terms of style, musical line, projection and variety of tone however her singing is rather poor. And since some people are concerned with Lezhneva lack of interpretative skills, I wonder what one can make of De Niese in that respect then. Because honestly, I would be very grateful if someone could point me towards a performance of hers where she attempts to interpret something.

          So yes, she is pretty much an ARTISTIC non entity because in terms of singing and artistry, there is very little going on.

          • armerjacquino

            Well, that’s easy. Her breakthrough Glyndebourne CESARE is full of both interaction and interpretation.

            • La marquise de Merteuil


  • Chanterelle

    I’ve now heard Lezhneva live twice. As Urbain in Brussels in 2011 she sounded fabulous and pranced around the stage like she owned it--drew ovations out of proportion to the size of the role. Then I saw the program of her first aria album and wondered why she was prematurely tackling such big girl repertoire. When she sang the soprano solo in the Mozart Requiem at Avery Fisher Hall (2012? 2013?) she made no impact. Wrong choice for her anyway. Everything else I’ve heard her sing has been on YouTube, and I find her Handel singing delightful. I’m glad that at 24 she’s focussing on technique rather than mugging. We’ve seen how that’s turned out for some of her slightly older colleagues…

    • la vociaccia

      But..has she developed technically? I don’t notice any improvements between her technique from 2010 and now- in fact I think I enjoyed her earlier singing more than what I’ve heard recently. The top has become much more rigid. I’m grateful for some of the music she has recorded (such as the Porpora Motet) but I stop short at calling anything about her singing ‘impeccable.’

    • Regina delle fate

      And yet she has already sung Fiordiligi for Minko….hmmmm

  • Hippolyte

    An aria from Lezhneva’s latest recording, due next month in the US but already out in Europe:

    The lightning-fast agility is impressive but there remains something Olympia (the mechanical doll)-like about her singing.

  • Milady DeWinter

    Well, it’s very fast and in tune, Hippolyte; but I wonder: is she a soprano at all? Clearly at this atage of her young career, baroque and early classical and light Rossini are better for her than battling a larger orchestra. I do hear a thinning out at the top, and that combined with the rapidity reminds me of an ancient recording by Irene Abendroth; trouble is, when Abendroth recorded, though only in her thirties, her voice, intactin the middle and still agile, had no top left beyond A or B.
    So what are we to make of Lezhneva? Maybe she’s headed towards (or should be directed to) Melisande, Susannah or Cherubino, in addition to the more adjustable tessituras of the baroque masters--

  • Le_Chiffre

    I haven’t had much exposure to Julia, so I spent the past half hour listening to some of the clips linked here and elsewhere. Haven’t heard her live, at all.

    --What I love: Her coloratura is amazing in the Hasse as well as some Rossini excerpts--and the Hasse suits her well. Although the Rossini isn’t as solid as it could be, when Julia does open up the most it seems to be in the Rossini rep.

    --What I hate: All non-coloratura elements of her technique. Both the high and low edges of her register are problematic. Julia’s lower register doesn’t project or contain core very well in live performances whether she’s mic’d for hall/production purposes (2010 Classical Brits) and when she’s not mic’d (orchestral, lieder clips). From an interpretive POV (language barriers duly noted), her diction isn’t clear…..ever. Beyond diction, lack of interpretive inflection belies the fact her technique isn’t solid enough to allow for much variation beyond a mostly uniform, boyish tone.

    --Her vocal future: Julia may have a wonderful future in baroque recordings only--I don’t see her as versatile as a young Bartoli, though. As to whether she’ll shake out as a soprano or a mezzo is TBD, since again both edges of her range are dodgy. And they may not sort out. She has a lot of years ahead of her, and I want her to do well. Will just have to wait and see.

  • Grane

    Lezhneva has an emotional transparence and a sincerity that’s appealing. These qualities could well develop into true artistic insight as she gains in maturity, but could also congeal into mannerisms and mugging. She’s very promising. I hope she’s in good hands.

    • Regina delle fate

      She almost certainly isn’t in good hands if it’s true that she turned down Glyndebourne -- a good place to launch herself operatically in the UK -- because of the (well-known) modest fees.

  • Adam Moscoe

    Thank you all for the fascinating comments — I think you’ll have to hear her live to get a proper sense of her current capabilities.

  • I only saw/heard her once, as the Page in Les Huguenots, and only noted “Yulia Lezhneva scored a popular hit as the page”. I might have tried harder…

  • Adam Moscoe