Véronique Gens is a much-loved regular at the Wigmore Hall, generally focusing there on Mélodie and Chanson, despite her formidable reputaion in more esoteric French repertoire. Will London ever be ready for full Belle Époque opera ? Or even full Baroque opera ? In France she's the doyenne of French style. Gens starred in Niobe, regina di Tebe and La Calisto at the Royasl Opera hopuse but we don't really get enough of her live. (Thank goodness for recordings !) So we're lucky to have her at the Wigmore Hall with regular pianist Susan Manoff. Gens is sounding as fresh and lustrous as ever : a gorgeous recital, perfect balm for a sticky summer evening.
Gens and Manoff began with Gounod, whose 200th birthday is celebrated this year, with lots of new performances and material. Listen specially to the opera Dante (more here) sponsored by Palazzetto Bru Zane, and for a briefer sample of her opera tableaux, listen to her wonderful collection Visions (HERE) and its companion Néère, with familiar Duparc, Hahn, and Chausson mélodies. Gens and Manoff began with a spirit of adventure, the breezy Gounod Où voulez-vous aller? the last lines lit with coloratura ebullience. Subdued refinement in Le Soir, quietly fading to silence, and lovely piano line in O ma belle rebelle. In Gounod Sérénade the piano line ripples while the voice creates decorative trills evoking the sound of possibly Alpine calls. "Ah! Dormez, dormez ma belle... dormez dormez toujours!" It's a berceuse, setting a text by Victor Hugo, the music cradling the lines in gentle,rocking motion. Gosh, how I love this song, which is, fortunately, a Gens staple which she's done many times. A poised Mignon and an exuberant Viens, les gazons sont verts, almost literally breathing fresh air.
Another serenade, in Lamento by Edmund, Prince du Polignac was sensual, like a serenade on a lute, with the air of something alien and exotic, possibly a guitar, evoking romantic Southern climes. The last line, though is the punchline, the timbre suddenly dropping on the words "un ange amoreux". It's a love song for someone dead, in "la blanche tombe,
Où flotte avec un son plaintif
L'ombre d'un if ?" The text is Théophile Gautier. Massenet's Chant provençal describes a girl so pure she doesn't know her charms. The piano part protectively with its tinkling brightness shields Gens's delicate vocal line. True innocence is harder to portray than extravagance but Massenet makes it sound effortless. And thus to Massenet's Élégie, where simplicity gives way to almost operatic declamation. Good programming : the songs in this section heard together form a coherent arc, complemented by Massenet's Nuit d'Espagne, which picks up the idea of lute/guitar serenade.
After the interval, Henri Duparc and Reynaldo Hahn, representing a generation later than Gounod and Massenet,. Duparc's Chanson triste, La vie antérieure and Extase all beautifully expressed by Gens and Manoff who have performed them together many times. But in the context of this evening's recital, what stood out was Lamento, where Duparc sets the same Gauthier text that inspired Edmund Polignac, but chooses different stanzas. Duparc doesn't need mock guitar serenade, since he focuses more on the mournful meaning of the poem. Gens declaimed with elegant dignity, Manoff creating the dark, rumbling piano lines. Good programming is important! Someone recently told me that he hated concerts because he couldn't concentrate solely on what he wanted to hear, but yow ! That's the whole point of a recital, putting things together in a way that enhances them all.
Three songs from Reynaldo Hahn Le rossignol des lilas, Mai, and Les cygnes, ideally suited to the innate purity of Gen's style, With Infidélité and Rêverie she could display more depth and richness of tone. As always fidelity to meaning makes all, the difference. Gens understands why the emotions in the poem (Gautier) are understated rather than overt. A change of mood to conclude, with songs from Offenbach's Six Fables of La Fontaine, La laitière et le pot au lait, Le rat de ville et le rat des champs, La cigale et la fourmi and for the first encore, Le corbeau et le renard. Offenbach replicates la Fontaine's long almost prose like lines, lively phrasing bringing out the sting in their tales. Gen's gift for precise diction and clarity paid off handsomely. For a second encore, Gabriel Fauré's Le rose d'Ispahan, one of the loveliest songs in the entire canon, deliciously fragrant in this performance. A third encore : Reynaldo Hahn's Néère.