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Véronique Gens: "Visions"

CD Button Arias by Bizet, Bruneau, David, Février, Franck, Godard, Halévy, Massenet, Niedermeyer and Saint-Saëns. Munich Radio Orchestra, Niquet. Texts and translations. Alpha Classics 279

Critics Choice Button 1015 

THIS EXCELLENT new disc of arias from operas and oratorios continues French soprano Véronique Gens’s nonpareil investigation of her native repertory. A fine musician and interpreter who began her career—now just more than three decades old—as a Baroque specialist working with the finest conductors, Gens in time added Mozart to her repertoire and has recently tackled full lyric roles such as Weber’s Agathe and Verdi’s Alice Ford. But the exploration of centuries of Gallic repertory has fueled both her live-performance and recording calendars. She brings along not only the clarity of timbre and deeply musical phrasing her early training afforded but a unique ability among her contemporaries to shade French words with style and affecting meaning.

Gens has offered her public three discs of “Tragédiennenes” on Erato, taking on French composers from Leclair, Mondonville and Rameau through Berlioz and Massenet—plus foreigners (Gluck, Verdi) who came to Paris with francophone scores. The new CD’s focus is implicit in its title: visionary scenes from the “long” nineteenth century (1837–1919). Some are religious, as in Clotilde’s simple and rapturous prayer in Bizet’s Prix de Rome cantata Clovis et Clotilde. César Franck (in Les Béatitudes) and Massenet (in La Vierge) crafted arias for the Virgin herself. Some—as in the fine number “Là-bas, vers le palais,” from Benjamin Godard’s Les Guelfes—embody sensuous or (tastefully) erotic visions as recollected or hoped-for encounters.

Over the years, Gens’s instrument has grown in scope; if she lacks the middle-register richness of a Régine Crespin, she can now (through precise gradation of dynamics) suggest the scale of dark soprano called “Falcon” after the creator of Meyerbeer’s Valentine and Halévy’s Rachel. (One of the rarest selections—an awakening from a nightmare—comes from Louis Niedermeyer’s Stradella, the work in which poor Mlle. Falcon was singing when she lost her voice forever at the age of twenty-three.) The very top has never been Gens’s province; high passages can sound pressured. But this artist knows how to avoid mishaps through judicious phrasing. Her efforts here are greatly aided by conductor Hervé Niquet, with whom she has previously recorded motets by Rameau. 

The booklet offers decent explanatory essays and texts with English translations. None of the works represented here has ever been given by a major American company, at least not since Chicago Opera gave the premiere of Henry Février’s Gismonda for Mary Garden back in 1919. Gens’s revelatory performances of these unfamiliar selections reward repeated listening.  —David Shengold 

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