Berlioz: Les nuits d’été; La mort de Cléopâtre; Zaïde; La captive; La belle voyageuse

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LABELS: Virgin
WORKS: Les nuits d’été; La mort de Cléopâtre; Zaïde; La captive; La belle voyageuse
PERFORMER: Véronique Gens (soprano); Lyon National Opera Orchestra/Louis Langrée
CATALOGUE NO: VC 5 45422 2
Berlioz orchestrated Les nuits d’été for different voice-types and it is indeed rare to hear a single singer using all the original keys. Janet Baker counteracts the downward transposition of three songs with her usual attention to detail, but cannot overcome the stodginess of Giulini’s leisured tempi and orchestral plushness. Baker was a great Berlioz singer, but this generously filled disc is most worth having for the Chausson and Schoenberg, live performances (with other conductors) which match any available. It is scandalous that no texts are supplied. I suspect that Baker’s Les nuits d’été is the slowest on record; Véronique Gens’s is surely the fastest by several minutes. But if occasionally light on atmosphere, it


is far from perfunctory, and ‘Absence’ gains a directness of human feeling sometimes missing when sopranos linger on its echoing refrain. Gens transposes the contralto songs up; her downward transposition of ‘Au cimetière’ is inexplicable, but this strange song retains its chilly sense of premonition. Among the rest, ‘La captive’ stands out in its bejewelled orchestral setting. La mort de Cléopâtre is less operatic than Jessye Norman’s tremendous performance, but brings richness from a voice always pure and poised; the cantata’s lyrical and dramatic originality emerge at full strength. Les nuits d’été is very difficult to bring off; while aware that its relative speed and slightly dry sound may leave some listeners dissatisfied, I am inclined to make Gens’s performance a benchmark, at least for versions using a single voice. Julian Rushton