Having enjoyed Karin Gauvin’s recital of Porpora arias accompanied by Il Complesso Barocco, I jumped forward a hundred years or so ahead to listen to Marie-Nicole Lemieux perform a very different type of vocal recital and demonstrates how versatile an artist Lemieux is.
As I have previously said, I was much impressed by Lemieux’s performance in Ariodante, she has a rich, warm tone, and on this recital disc she does not disappoint overall. Drawing her arias from Massenet, Cherubini, Berlioz, Thomas, Bizet and Saint-Saens she spans a high point in French opera from Medée in 1797 to Werther in 1892. There is no attempt at chronology in this recital but rather a simply alternation between moods. However each aria has clearly been carefully chosen and it’s always a pleasant surprise to listen to a recital where not absolutely everything has been heard before.
The title for the disc comes from the the first aria, Hérodiade’s aria from the First Act Massenet’s opera of the same name. In typical French manner, this is not a straightforward retelling of the Salome story. To cut a long story short Salome, having tried to die along side Jean (the Baptist) and failing attempts to kill her mother before stabbing herself. Opening in suitably dramatic fashion, Ne me refuse pas sets the emotional momentum for the entire disc with Lemieux immediately demonstrating her ability to annunciate the French text clearly and with passion. In my opinion, French is a difficult language to sing in and while Lemieux may be Canadian it is still a pleasant surprise to be able to understand the text without referring to the booklet.
A delicately played bassoon obbligato opens Ah! Nos peines seront communes from Cherubini’s Médée, written at the height of the French Revolution. Clearly influenced by Gluck, this famous aria continues the sense of emotional suffering with Cherubini spinning out a wonderful sustained vocal line which is sensitively sung by Lemieux above a sympathetic orchestral accompaniment. I imagine that even the French paused from guillotining people during this opera!
Next is Halévy’s Sous leur sceptre … Humble filles des champs. Halévy is not a composer I am well acquainted with yet this scene offers the temptation to investigate his operas further. Clearly he was a composer of opera in the ‘grand’ manner and Charles VI was written in 1843, eight years after the success of his La Juive and ran for an impressive 61 performances after it’s premiere. An impressive accompanied recitative section is followed by two-part aria. The opening section has a pastoral bent with flutes, horns and pizzicato strings. Again the influence of Gluck is not too far in the distance. But inevitably the second section sees Odette – for whom the aria is written – stepping up a gear above martial brass and what is clearly a call to arms and clearly aimed at getting the audiences it’s feet in applause. Lemieux shows herself more than able to travel across the emotional span of this aria with remarkable ease.
Qu’Apollon soit loué … Ombre d’Agamemnon is by the unknown André Wormser from his cantata Clytemnestre which won the much vaunted Prix de Rome in 1875. Notable wind in the recitative and the impassioned vocal writing in the aria itself underscored by the relentless drive of the string writing driving to the word propitié makes this scene stand out on the disc.
The aria Connais-tu le pays? from Ambroise Thomas’ Mignon is from the original 1866 version of the opera when the title role was written for a mezzo. It’s probably the most famous aria from the entire work and relates Mignon’s memories of her childhood in an unknown country before her abduction. As this is opera, she inadvertently finds herself in her family home by the end of the opera and Thomas repeats the melody in the final trio. All credit to Lemieux for making the aria sound more emotionally substantial than, in truth, it is in reality.
Massenet returns with Werther, Werther! Qui m’aurait dit la place, written just over a decade after Hérodiade. Clearly his musical language had developed in these ten years and the orchestral accompaniment for this famous letter scene clearly portrays the emotional turmoil of Charlotte as she realises the inevitable and the audience the inevitability of the final tragedy. Again, Lemieux skilfully traverses the emotional highs and lows of music and makes one wish that original mezzo role was adhered to more often.
Berlioz also gets two arias in this recital – from Roméo et Juliette and Les Troyens. Technically a symphonie dramatique, Berlioz’s take on Shakespeare’s immortal love story is one of his best works and the hushed wonder of Premieres transport … Heureaux Enfants with it’s gentle harp accompaniment and closing choral entry is one of the recital disc’s highlights.
At the end other end of Berlioz’s emotional scale is Lemieux’s performance of Didon’s death scene Je vais mourir from his grand opéra Les Troyens. While her performance is rather cool, she does in the closing adieu spin a rich vocal line.
Similarly her performance of L’amour est un oiseau rebelle is not the strongest performance on the disc. She doesn’t really the necessary sultriness for this role.
The final two pieces on the disc however are a return to then nigh standard of the recital. Saint-Saëns’ Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix is a gem. With the naturalness of her French – she relishes each and every vowel of the text – and with the most sympathetic support from the orchestra would have made this a suitable end to the recital.
Yet Ms Lemieux ends with with coquettish Examinez ma figure from La fille de Tambour. Again underlining how important clear diction is – particularly in French opera – she delivers a fitting ending to a strong recital disc.
Bar a few inconsistencies this is a very enjoyable recital. Unlike Gauvin who focuses on a single composer, Ms Lemieux travels through a century of French vocal music, alternating better known arias and others which are more rarely, if ever performed, yet bear repeated listening – here I think particularly of André Wormser.
The Orchestra National de France conducted by Fabien Gabel are considerate and sensitive supporters throughout the recital with particularly fine playing from the various incidental soloists.
This is definitely a CD I shall return to regularly.