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Recording of the Week, Véronique Gens sings French Romantic arias

If one or two of the composers on this gorgeous recital of French Romantic arias are unfamiliar to you, you’re in august company – Véronique Gens told me in a recent interview that until the enterprising folk at the Palazzetto Bru Zane (the Venice-based centre for research into neglected French repertoire of the nineteenth century who’ve recently given us world premiere recordings of a host of complete operas on the Ediciones Singulares label) presented her with a hefty bundle of possible grist to the mill for the project, several of the names here were completely new to her as well! Though much of this repertoire fell quite rapidly out of vogue in the early twentieth century (thanks in part to the economics involved in mounting some of the larger-scale works), it’s all immensely attractive music, and I can think of no finer advocates than Gens and the Münchner Runfunkorchester under Hervé Niquet, who sound for all the world as if they’re playing period instruments thanks to the idiomatic handling of style and sonority on show.

Véronique Gens
Véronique Gens

As the title suggests, the collection presents us with a gallery of women experiencing revelations and dreams, whether serene and ecstatic or nightmarish and neurotic: it’s an intriguing mixture of the sacred and profane, taking in oratorio, opera (both grand and comique) and cantatas (the youthful works by Bruneau and Bizet were both submitted for the Prix de Rome). The line between the two is frequently blurred – for instance, several of the women we encounter are in the process of getting to a nunnery (church-bells and hymn-like sections abound, especially in the extracts from Henry Février’s Gismonda and Fromental Halévy’s fantastical grand opera La magicienne, which owes more than a little to Elisabeth’s music in Tannhäuser), whilst Franck’s depiction of the Virgin foreseeing the death of her Son comes across as touchingly human. The recital kicks off with the tempestuous first section of Alfred Bruneau’s Geneviève (1881), based on the story of a fourth-century saint in the Joan of Arc mould, and it really packs a quasi-operatic punch – all turbulent chromaticism and military fanfares in the dramatic opening recitative, giving way to a serene pastoral aria complete with rustic oboe solo.

Almost all of the composers featured here were quite superb melodists, and the disc is positively packed with memorable tunes – after listening just a couple of times I felt like I’d known the lush middle section of Bėatrix’s aria from Saint-Saëns’s Étienne Marcel and the pulsating refrain from Léonor’s big scene in Niedermeyer’s Stradella for years rather than days.

Aside from the wealth of new discoveries on offer, the other great appeal lies in the rather magical chemistry in evidence between repertoire and artist. As Gens summarised it in that recent interview, ‘I’m not a soprano, and I’m not a mezzo – I’m something in between!’, and all of the music on this collection lies smack in her hitting-zone: though it ranges from a low B flat to a high C, most of the arias sit squarely in the middle of the voice, which enables her to enunciate the texts with superb clarity throughout. There’s a very particular something about Gens’s basic timbre which I’ve always found immensely engaging – her tone’s slender and dark without being plummy, coupled with a rather fast vibrato that’s tremendously expressive but never intrusive and which is eminently suited to the task of bringing these febrile heroines to life.

The next year has several further treats in store for fans of neglected French opera – Gens recorded the title-role in Halévy’s La Reine de Chypre in Paris only last week (scheduled for release on Ediciones Singulares in 2018), and there are also imminent recital-discs from soprano Joyce El-Khoury and tenor Michael Spyres on Opera Rara which will focus on music written for two stars of the Paris Opera, Julie Dorus-Gras and Gilbert Duprez. Stay tuned for previews!

Véronique Gens (soprano), Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Hervé Niquet

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC