Gens scores a hat trick with heroines familiar and forgotten.
While her colleagues scramble to devise a novel concept for every disc they release, French soprano Véronique Gens has been steadily developing a project she began six years ago with a disc exploring the French Baroque tragédie lyrique from Lully to Rameau. This release, the third in her series focusing on the tragic heroines of 18th- and 19th-century French opera, skips ahead a century. And judging by the musical riches she’s still unearthing, she may well stretch it to a fourth.
Some of the repertoire here will be familiar to aficionados of grand opera: Gluck’s Iphigénie (1779), Berlioz’s Dido (1858) and Verdi’s Elisabeth (in her French incarnation) jostle with the heroines of the forgotten Auguste Mermet’s Roland à Ronceveaux and Kreutzer’s Astyanax. Most of these women sing in the face of massive personal and/or political crises, and Gens’s distinctive ability to sound both utterly refined and completely unhinged at the same time ensure that each character, however obscure, comes to life with equal vigour. Many of the arias here were originally written for singers who would today be classified as mezzo-sopranos but their low, meaty tessitura holds no perils for Gens, whose lissome soprano has always been on the dark side anyway.
She’s well and truly at home in this repertoire, whatever its vocal category, and the disc is dotted with revelations: Méhul’s bracing Quelle furure barbare, for instance, and Catherine of Aragon’s stunning scena from Saint-Säens’s Henry VIII. And while Gens herself can hardly be called a revelation at this point, her agile and expressive soprano – spitting with rage one moment, shiningly lyrical the next – continues to thrill.
With Christophe Rousset and period instrument ensemble Les Talens Lyriques vividly at her side for every hairpin bend (and a few solo turns of their own) this disc is ample proof that a sequel can indeed live up to the original.
This article appeared in the August, 2012 issue of Limelight Magazine.
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