Ne me refuse pas

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COMPOSERS: Berlioz,Bizet,Cherubini,Halévy,Massenet,Saint-Saens,Thomas,Wormser
WORKS: French opera arias by Berlioz, Bizet, Cherubini, Halévy, Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Thomas, Wormser
PERFORMER: Marie-Nicole Lemieux (contralto), François Lis (bass); Le Jeune Choeur de Paris; Orchestre National de France/Fabien Gabel

This procession of femmes fatales, schemers and innocents has a point to make, and it’s not just the singer’s ability to get under their skin. By putting famous arias in a thought-through context of rarities, it shows them as part of a larger movement: the rise of the 19th-century French mezzo. Nearly everything proceeds in broad, sweeping phrases that were often vehicles for what the Italian opera world disparagingly called ‘urlo francese’. Shorn of overwrought screaming, they can make daunting demands on sustaining power and musical distance vision.
So Halévy’s Odette and Wormser’s Clytemnestre – the latter’s aria an unexpected delight with its pastiche-Pastoral birds and its willingness to rhyme ‘pardonne’ with ‘Tisiphone’ – show the way towards Dido and Dalila. Marie-Nicole Lemieux is equal to them all, adjusting vibrato and shading an essentially contralto colour according to dramatic demands. Her Carmen is more compelling than flamboyant, and she finds fun in the ‘surprise’ Offenbach hidden at the end. Robert Maycock