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Posts Tagged ‘Véronique Gens’

When I told a friend who lives in Paris that I was going to see Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris at the Opéra, he asked me right away if I knew that this was Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging. He did not know that I had seen his Un Tramway… with Isabelle Huppert in 2008 (?) and survived to be surprised by his fascinating Frau ohne Schatten in Munich a couple of years ago. Back in 2006, though, this Iphigénie, as far as I understand, was his first take on directing opera. And one can see that.

Dramaturg Miron Hakenbeck makes, in his text in the booklet, valid and insightful points in traumatic events in the context of family and war and also about family ties in times of war and how one survives and eventually finds healing. However, what one sees on stage is too contrived for one to make all that out. What is truly clear is that there is a woman in a retirement home reminiscing about sad events in her family, probably the consequences of the incestuous relationship between her mother and her brother (the part about Orestes and Pylades I’ll leave out, because this is hard to overlook in the text as it is…). The whole affair of Iphigenia’s duties as a priestress makes very little sense in the context: the moment a knife appears in her hand seems completely nonsensical for someone who had never seen this opera before. To make things worse, Warlikowski is not fond of choristers and one listens to their singing (and also every small role) off stage, what makes the last scene (when the Greek priestresses and the scythians fight over Orestes) impossible to follow (musically too). In any case, the director’s worst offense in an opera that can be low in dramatic tension was letting it be very low in dramatic tension. One just needs to check Youtube to see the excerpts from the performances at the Theater an der Wien and in Salzburg to see the difference.

Although the Palais Garnier had seen period instrument groups in its pit, this Iphigénie has the house orchestra under all-purpose conductor Bertrand de Billy. His approach was almost invariably valid in terms of tempo and accent, but the orchestra often sounded colorless, undistinguished and unclear. And the off-stage chorus is a something no serious conductor should accept.

Véronique Gens’s soprano is tailor-made for the role of Iphigénie, and she sings it with unfailing sense of style, clarity of diction and dramatic engagement – even if her high notes took a while to find the ideal focus. I had read a great deal about Stanislas de Barbeyrac and was curious to hear him live. It is indeed an interesting voice – rather big for a Mozart tenor, but curiously baritonal in color. One can understand why reviewers tend to imagine him in heavier roles, but he still has to figure out his high register, which sounds a bit tight and grainy. His ease with mezza voce, however, is praiseworthy, as well as his phrasing, musicainly and expressive all the way. Replacing Stéphane Degout, Etienne Dupuis offered an ideal performance as Orest both in terms of voice and interpretation. Bravo. I’ve read that Thomas Johannes Mayer would sing the role of Thoas with some surprise. Although his bass-baritone is not truly smooth, his singing did not make violence to classical style and the rough edges made sense for the role of the bloodthirsty king. Curiously, he sounded a bit out of sorts in the last act.

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In a program entirely dedicated to French baroque music, Gotfried von der Goltz and his Freiburger Barockorchester invited French soprano Véronique Gens to add some authentic flavour to the proceedings. A wise choice, for this repertoire is not really known this side of the Rhine and it is good to have a regular of William Christie’s and Marc Minkowski’s recordings to run to in case of doubt. In any case, Gens must have adopted the famous “In Rome do as Romans do”, for the final results were a bit Germanic – albeit in a very positive way. For example, the comparison with Cristophe Rousset’s recording of Lully’s Roland shows the French conductor far more dance-like and varied, while the Freiburgers added a straightforward and propulsive quality that made the orchestral “highlights” rather coherent somehow. One could not avoid the same impression that the German musicians were gutsier and more incisive in the excerpts from Rameau’s Dardanus when comparing it to Minkowski’s more flexible and sensuous recording (with Véronique Gens as well). Curiously, the tambourin twinset is surprisingly more exciting in Minkowski’s exhilaratingly fast account. Unfortunately, I cannot compare both conductors in Rebel’s Les caractères de la danse, for Minkowski’s CD is deleted from the catalogue, but I suspect that the French conductor would have stressed the contrasts between the dances more vividly. In any case, Goltz was a clear-toned and vivid soloist in Leclair’s Concerto for violin op 7 no. 5.

Véronique Gens sang two items in the program – Montéclair’s cantata “Le dépit généreux” and the arias from Dardanus. In the cantata, her irresistibly sensuous and velvety tone, immaculate sense of style and crystal-clear diction worked to perfection, the “emotional journey” – from despair to peace of mind – well characterized. If Julia Gooding is far less impressive in Florilegium’s recording, their accompaniment is warmer and more colourful in compensation. In the Rameau items, she sang even more beguilingly in a tessitura that allowed her more creamy top notes in  more intense a context too. As an encore, the audience was treated to Lully’s Venez, haine implacable from Armide, where the Freiburgers proved to be far more exciting than Rousset in his video from Versailles (with Gens too, an omnipresence about which nobody feels like complaining).

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Seeing her live in Madrid singing Ravel´s Shéhérazade with such irresistible warm tone, aristocratic poise and looking so glamourous and feminine, I wonder WHY nobody has ever invited her for the Feldmarschallin. I know there is only one recording in which she sings a German text, but I think she should really think about it – and what about Schumann´s Liederkreis Op. 39?

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Although the Orquesta Nacional de España has labelled one series of concerts “Looking East”, the only obvious connection in the February 29th program is Ravel’s Shéhérazade. A text in the program book tries to explain the relation for Debussy´s La Mer, but even the author gives up when it comes to Schumann’s cello concerto op. 129.

Of course, the bizarre title has nothing to do with the music making itself. In the Schumann item, Steven Isserlis proved to be the cellists’ answer to Cecilia Bartoli – his intense playing goes beyond producing pretty sounds, but you still have to deal with a tone that is basically unnoble. I don’t know if Schumann would have expected the one-paroxism-per-second approach, but it definitely makes its point. Conductor Josep Pons, the orchestra’s musical director, fortunately could cope with the emotional approach without sacrificing polish – something he could not repeat in the Debussy piece. Maybe I am spoiled by the recent Carnegie Hall concert with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Mariss Jansons but, even if the ONE has rich strings, the over-extrovert approach brought about a stridence that – in my opinion – has nothing to do with this kind of music. The conductor looked for bombastics and marked dance-like rhythms that eschewed any sense of demi-tintes (and some clarity either).

It is most curious, though, that Pons could fnd again the necessary subtle shading for Ravel’s Shéhérazade, when he had an extraordinary soloist in Véronique Gens. You can call me an admirer, but I have to confess this was the best I have ever heard from her either live or in recordings. Her sensuous soprano gleamed from bottom to top and one could understand each vowel and consonant in the French text, treated to masterly tone-colouring, the most ethereal mezza-voce and full-toned velvetiness, as required in the first song. This was definitely one of the most perfect vocal performances I have heard live in a while – hence my disappointment with the audience’s tame reception.

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