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Monday, 29 October 2018

Confidence: Julien Behr in 19th century Romantic French opera arias

Confidence - Julien Behr - Alpha Classics
Gounod, Delibes, Messager, Joncieres, Holmes, Bizet, Godard, Lehar, Chabrier, Thomas, Duparc, Trenet; Julien Behr, Orchestre de l'Opera de Lyon, Pierre Bleuse; Alpha Classics Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 October 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A delightful exploration of the tenor voice, as evinced by works written for the Opera Comique in the later 19th century

This disc from Alpha Classics has the name Palazzetto Bru Zane attached, so we know that it will be an exploration of some aspect of 19th century Romantic French opera, almost certainly something we might not have heard before and ought to have. The name of the disc Confidence does not really shed any light, and the range of operas is wide with works by Gounod, Delibes, Messager, Victorin Joncieres, Augusta Holmes, Bizet, Benjamin Godard, Franz Lehar, Chabrier, Ambroise Thomas, Duparc and Charles Trenet! The performer is the tenor Julien Behr, with the Orchestre de l'Opera de Lyon conducted by Pierre Bleuse.

In fact the three orchestral works apart (Duparc's Aux etoiles, Augusta Holmes La Nuit e l'Amour and Chabrier's Habanera), all the operas on the disc were presented at the Opera Comique, some are familiar such as Delibes' Lakme, and Thomas' Mignon, others are familiar names though the works themselves are less so, Messager's Fortunio Bizet's La Jolie Fille de Perth, Godard's Jocelyn (the latter two very much one-hit wonders), whilst others are barely even names, Gounod's Cinq Mars, Delibes' Jean de Nivelle, Joncieres' Le Chevalier Jean. And then there is the Viennese operetta given in French, Lehar's Le Pays du Sourire and La Veuve Joyeuse.

What the disc, in fact, explores is a particular voice type which developed at the Opera Comique in the latter half of the 19th century, the grand tenor d'opera comique or tenor de demi-caractere.
This was something of a half-way house between the light-clear sound used at the Opera Comique earlier in the century and the more dramatic grand opera tenors singing Meyerbeer at the Paris Opera. So we have a voice which can move between lyricism and power, sweetness and introspection, and particularly uses that very French head voice (voix de tete) which enables high, quiet singing. Nowadays many of the roles written for such a voice type, if heard at all, are heard sung by tenors with rather heavier voices (think of the way Gounod's Romeo has been adopted by a range of more dramatic tenors).

Tenor Julien Behr has popped up on this blog a couple of times, as Fenton in Verdi's Falstaff in Antwerp [see Tony's review], and singing Felicien David for Palazzetto Bru Zane [see my CD review], but here we really get to hear what he can do.

If we listen to something like the well-known 'Serenade' from Bizet's La Jolie Fille de Perth, then we can hear the interesting mix of line and lyricism with a sense of innate power which for me recalled the performance of the English tenor Heddle Nash (an icomparable lyric tenor whose repertoire extended to Elgar's Gerontius and David in Wagner's The Mastersingers). Throughout the disc Behr impressed with his sense of elegance and style, and the way he was able to shade his voice in the quieter passsages (that voix de tete) yet never seemed underpowered when the going got heavier. I would love to hear him in Romeo's 'Ah! lève-toi, soleil!' from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette.


As it is, we hear a lovely lyrical item from Gounod's 1877 opera Cinq Mars, an opera that still awaits discovery and a piece which demonstrates the necessity for subtlety in this repertoire. Most of the pieces on the disc are full of this romantic lyricism, with delicate half tones vying with more dramatic out bursts.  Some, like the berceuse from Godard's 1866 opera Jocelyn have developed a life outside the opera, but others such as the items from Delibes' 1880 opera Jean de Nouvelle or Joncieres' Le Chevalier de Jean are entirely new.

Where the pieces are familiar, it is a welcome pleasure to hear them sung with such confident style and with a rightness of voice and timbre. It is not just that Behr is a Frenchman singing French music, but that he knows when to push and when not, he never sounds over-parted and never feels that the voice is too big. So in Gerald's cavatina from Delibes' Lakme we hear the music in a way that tenors with bigger voices, who generally get to sing the role in modern opera houses, struggle to emulate.

One curiosity of the disc is its reflection of the way the Opera Comique performed Viennese operetta in French, and the two Lehar items are truly delightful and you felt you would happily sit through the entire La Veuve Joyeuse if all the singing was like this.

The orchestral items are fascinating too, apart from a beautifully subtle account of Chabrier's Habanera the other two were completely unfamiliar to me. Lovely to have more Augusta Holmes on disc, another composer who is vastly underrated and whose Lisztian tone-poems were regarded by her contemporaries as far too masculine!

The final item is a delightful oddity, we move vastly into the 20th century with an arrangement of Charles Trenet's Vous, qui passez sans me voir from 1937. In fact, not such a leap as it dates from just eight years after Lehar's late delight, Le pays du sourire (of 1929). This latter brings us to another vocal comparison which might illuminate Behr's voice type; the Lehar aria Behr's sings was written for Richard Tauber.

Under Pierre Bleuse, the Lyon Opera orchestra matches Behr for style and the results are captivating. The orchestra shows its grasp of style and subtlety in its three orchestral items too.

Too often, when these later 19th century works written for the Opera Comique are performed, the voices singing the roles are the wrong type/size, such is the change which has come over the training of opera singers in the late 20th and 21st centuries. So it is with great delight that I listen to this disc, with its secure sense of rightness and style, the right voice and the music being performed with the right style. For all our obsession with period performance practice, we rarely venture towards period voices yet having the right voice type can make all the difference in this type of music.

Essential listening.

Charles Gounod (1818-1893) - A Vous, Ma Mère...ô Chère Et Vivante Image (Cinq-Mars, 1877)
Leo Delibes (1836-1891) - J'ai Vu La Bannière De France! (Jean de Nivelle, 1880)
Andre Messager (1853-1929) - J'aimais La Vieille Maison Grise (Fortunio, 1907)
Victorin Joncieres (1839-1903) - Parlons De Moi, Le Voulez Vous?...Oui J'aime, Hélas! (Le chevalier de Jean, 1885)
Augusta Holmes (1847-1903) - La Nuit Et L'amour (Ludus pro patria, 1888)
Georges Bizet (1838-1875) - Serenade (La jolie fille de Perth, 1867)
Benjamin Godard (1849-1895) - Berceuse: Cachès Dans Cet Asile (Joceyln, 1888)
Leo Delibes - Prendre Le Dessin D'un Bijou...Fantaisie, Ô Divin Mensonge (Lakme, 1883)
Franz Lehar (1870-1948) - Dein Ist Mein Ganzes Herz (Le pays du sourire, 1929)
Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894) - Habanera (1885)
Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896) - Elle Ne Croyait Pas, Dans Sa Candeur Naïve (Mignon, 1866)
Franz Lehar - Viens Dans Ce Joli Pavillon (La veuve joyeuse, 1905)
Henri Duparc (1848-1933) - Aux Étoiles (1874/1910)
Charles Trenet (1913-2001), arr. Arthur Lavandier - Vous, Qui Passez Sans Me Voi
Julien Behr (tenor)
L'orchestra de l'Opera de Lyon
Pierre Bleuse (conductor)
Recorded 7-11 July 2017, Auditorium de Lyon
ALPHA CLASSICS ALPHA 401 1CD [65.37]

Available from Amazon.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • New music in Manchester - I chat to Tim Williams, artistic director of Psappha  - my interview
  • A walk with Ivor Gurney: Sarah Connolly and Tenebrae at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Colour and movement: orchestral music by Kenneth Hesketh (★★★½) - CD review
  • Abbandonata: Italian cantatas from Carolyn Sampson and Robert King  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Vivid story telling: Schubert's Swansong with Sir John Tomlinson and Christopher Glynn (★★★★) - CD review
  • Music for Windy Instruments: Sounds from the court of King James I (★★★½) - CD review
  • Independent Opera Showcase Recital at Wigmore Hall (★★★½) - concert review
  • Damn fine music: Stanford's Mass Via Victrix (1914-1918) receives its belated premiere  - feature
  • A visit to Italy at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Untold riches - music from Estonia & the Baltic at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Southbank Sinfonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy in Grieg, Prokofiev and Beethoven (★★★★)  concert review
  • A Bernstein Celebration - London English Song Festival - concert review
  • Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes (★★★) - theatre review
  •  Home

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