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Posts Tagged ‘Marie-Nicole Lemieux’

When Less Can Be More.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Gauvin, Handel, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Review on December 11, 2011 at 10:34 am

Review – Streams of Pleasure.
Karina Gauvin/Marie Nicole Lemieux/Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis.

Here’s a conundrum. When can an exceptional recital disc be marred by trying to cram too much into it?

For me this seems the case with this recital of arias and duets from Handel’s oratorios performed by Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux.

Having seen both of them in an outstanding concert performance of Alcina (alongside an incredibly heroic Joyce DiDonato) with Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis, it seemed only a matter of time before the two joined forces for a recital disc under Curtis’ direction.

While their decision to focus on Handel’s magnificent oratorios initially struck me as slightly unusual– and understandably they avoid any inclusions from The Messiah – this is in fact a superlative disc. Let’s be clear, they face inevitable comparison from Carolyn Sampson and countertenor Robin Blaze and their own oratorio disc released some years ago. Truth be told that remains a favourite recital disc of mine – Sampson’s wonderfully bright soprano coupled with Blaze’s clarion-like countertenor produces wonderfully intuitive music making. Whether by deliberate intention or accidental choice of repertoire, the Gauvin/Lemieux recital includes both duets and solo arias with few duplicate selections.

However what defines this new disc is a real sensuality in the performances as opposed to the almost chaste performances of the Sampson/Blaze recital disc. Don’t get me wrong, theirs are beautiful and often breathtaking performances, but the emotional reaction for me comes from the purity of their voices rather than any sense of emotion.

At fifteen tracks this new disc seems incredibly generous, so I was a little surprised to be left with a sense that a shorter selection would have made for a more enjoyable experience.

Without a doubt it is the duets that stand out appropriately so as it is the contrast of the vocal light and shade of Gauvin and Lemieux that lends this recital disc that aura of sensuality. The arias – with a few exceptions – do not match the emotional intensity of the duets and personally, ultimately seem to detract from the overall experience.

The disc opens with Destructive War, Thy Name Is Known from Belshazzar and Lemieux is in fine fettle, throwing out the coloratura with ease and supported by jaunty playing from the ensemble. However, it’s not the strongest opening argument for the disc which is why it seems a daring choice for the second track to be what must count as one of the finest duets, from either oratorio or opera, that Handel ever wrote – the heart-wrenching To Thee, Thou Glorious Son of Worth, from the second act of Theodora. Again a comparison unconsciously comes to kind – that of Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson and David Daniels in Peter Sellar’s unforgettable staging of the oratorio at Glyndebourne. Perhaps one of the most original stagings of Handel and fortunately – not only for Hunt-Lieberson’s unforgettable performance but also Sellars’ intelligent production and direction – caught for posterity on DVD. In comparison to the Sampson/ Blaze performance, Curtis chooses a slightly faster tempo but none of the beauty of the vocal writing or the tragedy of the duet is lost. And it is here that that feeling of sensuality comes to the fore, perhaps its the plangent bassoon, so clearly heard in the opening ritornello, that sets the mood which is underlined by how beautifully the voices of Gauvin and Lemieux intertwine and weave against each other. However Curtis does not allow the singers too much indulgence, maintaining a rhythmic alertness throughout – just listen to the precise delivery of the rhythmic line in the second section. Another wonderful touch happens with the return to the first section. As I’ve mentioned previously – and Curtis is somewhat guilty of this in the recording of Alcina – there can be a tendency to over-ornament da capo sections. Fortunately this is not the case here. Another nice touch is how in the da capo of this particular duet it is Lemieux who leads, ornamenting her vocal line that is then mimicked by Gauvin. A beautiful touch – and psychological insight of the two characters perhaps? – which helps to make this one of the highlights of the entire disc and therefore surprising to hear it so early in to the recital.

The remaining duets are all as impeccably performed with a real sense of drama. For example even the short duet From This Dread Scene from Judas Maccabeus, with its crisp martial accompaniment, is memorable. Both soloists capture and clearly enjoy the inherent drama in this short yet incentive duet.

Theodora’s Streams of Pleasure Everflowing, from which the CD takes its title, reminded me how this oratorio contains some of Handel’s most inspired music in English. Lemieux opens in suitably reverent tone, her creamy contralto wrapping itself wonderfully around the words. When Gauvin joins her, the effect as their vocal lines entwine is magical. Just listen to the wonderful pointed phrasing at ‘All the blissful holy choir’, especially in their mini-cadenza, to feel how in tune these two performers really are.

Our Limpid Streams With Freedom Flow from Joshua is the least effective duet on the disc. While this is a clean cut performance, wonderfully sung, it strikes more as a track filler for what follows – a remarkable performance of Can I See My Infant Gor’d from Solomon. Without a doubt the bass line and hesitant strings above are meant to represent the anguished thoughts of the mother, and Gauvin’s performance captures the mood perfectly, particularly as her diction is absolutely clear. The closing bars from ‘Spare my child, take him all’ is incredibly poignant.

The final track on the disc, and a worthy counterpoint to the first duet is the magnificent duet Great Victor, At Your Feet I Bow from Belshazzar. This is a beautifully crafted piece with Handel so brilliantly capturing the opposing emotions of the two protagonists. Gauvin and Lemieux fit the roles perfectly, the chaste and mournful queen and the young, impetuous yet magnanimous Persian king, investing their words with a real sense of meaning and passion.

Of the remaining arias, Lemieux provides a heart-stopping performance of As With Rosy Steps The Morn. The hushed orchestral opening is matched by the contralto’s own entry. I was once again reminded of Hunt-Lieberson’s haunting performance of this aria. Lemieux’s interpretation, balancing the restraint of the opening section with the increased emotional temperature of the middle section, makes this performance more than a worthy successor.

Joseph And His Brethren is rarely performed which is a shame based on Gauvin’s performance of Prophetic Raptures Swell My Breast. Clearly this aria was written for a soloist with an incredibly technique – not less evidenced by the opportunity for a cadenza at the soprano’s first entry. Research informs me it was written for Elisabeth Duparc, also known as La Francesina and for whom Handel also wrote the title role in Semele.

At almost nine minutes, this is a substantial aria and Gauvin delivers an impeccable and cheerful performance, throwing off the countless runs effortlessly. The minor mode middle section is memorable for the sudden shift in mood, and at the da capo Ms Gauvin’s ornamentation stays clearly on the side of intelligent – and perfectly delivered – addition rather than being over-florid and undermining the music.

Gauvin’s performance of My Father! Ah! Methinks I See The Sword from Hercules is suitably grief-laden. Written for the character Iole, it is one of Handel’s finest arioso-cum-arias. Despite the less melancholy second section, Peaceful Rest With Verdant Shade, Handel maintains an overall air of tragedy til the end.

Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco – as ever – provide keen and alert accompaniment throughout and as I have mentioned above, show incredible restraint is shown in terms of ornamentation of the reprised da capo sections. It has been suggested to me that this is due to the fact that the selections are from oratorios and a nod to the less secular content of the music itself. However I don’t buy into this considering that Baroque and early Classical composers as whole imported their operatic mannerisms wholesale into ecclesiastical music as a whole.

Without a doubt, Stream of Pleasure is a superlative disc. The quality of the performances cannot be faulted and both Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux do not disappoint in the high standard of their musicianship. However, when I return to this disc – which I will do often – I have a feeling that I will be programming my selection in advance to provide myself with a bespoke, shorter and ultimately more satisfying listen.

Review – Ne Me Refuse Pas, Marie-Nicole Lemieux/ Orch. National de France/Fabien Gabel (Naïve)

In Classical Music, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Opera on June 3, 2011 at 12:26 pm

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.

Handel – With Care (Wednesday 25 May @ The Barbican)

In Classical Music, Handel, Opera on May 25, 2011 at 11:20 pm
  • Ariodante: Joyce DiDonato
  • Ginevra: Karina Gauvin
  • Lurcanio: Nicholas Phan
  • Dalinda: Sabina Puértolas
  • King of Scotland: Matthew Brook
  • Polinesso: Marie-Nicole Lemieux
  • Odoardo: Sam Furness
  • Il Complesso Barocco & Alan Curtis)

Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco are one of the leading – if not the premier – original instrument ensembles at the moment. Their recordings of Handel’s operas are second to none and Curtis always assembles the strongest and most distinctive case.

The evening’s concert performance of Ariodante– part of a promotional tour for the new recording that they have just released – was no different. A quick glance at the cast – with three leading baroque specialists in the lead roles – meant that on paper it could not disappoint and in reality it exceeded expectation.

Ariodante has never been one of my favourite Handel operas. I have – like many people I think – enjoyed individual arias from the work, but previously the opera as a whole has not appealed. I can safely say that after this evening’s performance that has changed. I will be listening to their new recording of the opera with renewed interest.

Joyce DiDonato is a superlative, intelligent and charismatic performer. I first saw her in Hercules at the Barbican theatre in 2006 and – I must admit – have been a fan ever since. Her voice is beautifully round, robust and even through her whole – and extensive – range and she throws out pin-point precise coloratura. And her dynamic control, of light and shade, is always well judged. It is breathtaking how she can simply float a high note as was demonstrated this evening.

But what sets  DiDonato apart from many of her colleagues is how she inhabits the character she is singing. And tonight was no different. A stunning performance throughout, with a real sense of intelligence and insight of the lead character but for me – and I think many people in the auditorium – the standout moment was Scherza infida. Of course this is the most famous aria in the opera, and in Handel’s entire operatic output, but tonight was truly special. From the recitative immediately preceding, as Ariodante she was a broken man. Not only in her acting – and indeed she seemed to almost shrink into herself – but even how she modulated her voice into what can only be described as sobs. It was a searing interpretation and the whole audience seemed to collectively hold its breath until the final bar faded.

Yet this aria was merely the highpoint of an outstanding performance. Through every aria, from the pastoral arioso Qui d’amor nel suo linguaggio, the menacing Tu preparati a morire in the second act to the final, thrilling Dopo notte atra e funeste, with its perfectly executed, show-stopping bravura, DiDonato portrayed a character going through every emotion in the book.

Yet unlike many performances where one singer stands alone, this performance of Ariodante was different. DiDonato was one of a sterling team of singers.

Karina Gauvin as her spouse, created a Ginevra who was as human as her hero. Again from her opening Vezzi, lusinghe, e brio to her masterful final scenes of the Second Act, Gauvin delivered an amazing performance. Before the audience she went from princess-in-love to princess-on-the-edge, and made even her most difficult coloratura seem effortless and she spun her silvery voice around the notes.

And whenever DiDonato and Gauvin sang together, their voices blended perfectly.

Yet for me, the most pleasant surprise of the evening was Lemieux’s Polinesso. In her swagger it immediately reminded me of Kassarova’s Ruggiero from a recent performance of Alcina. With a rich, velvety voice Lemieux revelled in her character, again alternating between throwing off brilliant and effortless coloratura and beautiful legato phrases. Dover, giustizia, amor was particularly memorable. Indeed, this evening I have returned home and downloaded her latest album – Ne me refuse pas – Airs d’opéras français – and cannot wait to listen to it.

And what made each of their performances seem even more vital and alert was the incredible attention they paid to diction.

The rest of the cast, Matthew Brooks’ King, Nicholas Phan’s Lurcanio and last-minute stand-in, Sam Furness as Odoardo were all very good. Sabina Puértolas as Dalinda was a completely new singer to me. Her bright, light and flexible soprano was a delight and I look forward to hearing her again.

Needless to say Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco were exemplary in their support of the singers. Special mention must be made of the horn players who acquitted themselves more than admirably.

It is clear that Curtis is unrivalled in his understanding of, sympathy with and interpretation of Handel’s music. Tempos were perfect and the recitatives flow naturally.

I read in the programme that Giulio Cesare, Arianna in Creta and Agrippina are listed as future engagements and I, for one, cannot wait.

But this evening definitely belonged to the ladies. And the audiences showed their grateful appreciation.

Thank you one and all.

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