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Le Portrait de Manon
BERLIOZ: Les Nuits d'Été
Gaspar, Hipp; Bemsch, Zhou; Southbank Sinfonia, Paterson (Massenet), Krafft (Berlioz). Texts and translations. Opera Rara ORC47
The idea behind this pairing of works is rather clever. Massenet's one-act piece has only four characters, and the vocal demands placed on the singers are not heavy. The Berlioz song cycle, although it is often commandeered wholesale by star sopranos, was intended to be shared by three or four soloists. For this recording, made live in the small Linbury Theatre at Covent Garden in 2011, three singers from the house's young-artist program share the Berlioz cycle and are joined by a fourth singer for the Massenet. Perhaps neither piece represents its composer at his best, but the overall effect of these young singers in this light repertoire is pleasing.
Massenet's opera is just a bit more than a curiosity. It is something of a sequel to the giant, five-act Manon, but des Grieux is the only character to be carried over. At first it seems like a mere occasional piece, something that might have been run up for a gala. Quite a few tunes from Manon reappear — when des Grieux reminisces about the little table, the orchestra remembers it too — but soon several of Massenet's greatest compositional strengths turn out to be in evidence. He can conjure up a whole scene with just a few notes, and des Grieux's final solo gives us a fine musical moment in a remarkable compact structure. When two thwarted young lovers in the throes of a first crush debate the various ways in which they might kill themselves, the orchestra gently mocks them, a tricky proposition well caught by conductor Geoffrey Paterson. (The line "It would have been so nice to live" gives a good sample of Georges Boyer's libretto.) Massenet's beautiful technique of keeping the vocal line on a single note, allowing for maximum inflection of words, while the orchestra casts shifting harmonic tinges around it, is in full flower.
It has always been difficult to find a suitable context for the presentation of this piece in the opera house. (At Glimmerglass in 2005 it was paired with Poulenc's solo scene for soprano, La Voix Humaine, which is in fact a longer work.) But on records it makes a sweet effect. Mezzo Hanna Hipp shines in the trouser role of Jean. She is the one performer to throw her arms wide and really take some chances. She also sings "Sur les lagunes" and "La spectre de la rose" in the communal performance of Les Nuits d'Été, and it is striking how she chooses a substantially different tone color, deeper and richer, for the Berlioz songs. Soprano Susana Gaspar is the flighty Aurore in the Massenet. (Aurore makes Sophie in Werther seem like Thomas Edison.) In the Berlioz, "Absence" is a stretch for her, but she brings an appropriate excitement and a bit of charm to "L'île inconnue." Pablo Bemsch, the character tenor Tiberge in the Massenet, does not have the ideal steadiness of line for the other two Berlioz songs. ZhengZhong Zhou, the des Grieux, tends to oversing in his attempt to play a character much older than he is. Volker Krafft has better luck holding the Berlioz songs together than other conductors have had.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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