This varied and unusual collection fills a niche that most of us didn't stop to consider as having needed filling! Petibon and Cohën-Akenine have selected French theatrical airs written between 1686 and 1755 that run the gamut of emotions, from most tender love to howling derision. The result would make a rather effective cabaret show, at least for a certain type of audience.
Petibon, who looks like she could play a gamine in a French art-house film, specializes both in early music (she has worked with William Christie, Fabio Biondi, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and John Eliot Gardiner) and in coloratura roles from the 18th and 19th centuries. (Also, her moving portrayal of Sister Constance in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites is available on DVD.) She throws herself into this assignment with vehemence, moaning with love-and-duty-torn dismay (Charpentier's David et Jonathas), cackling with coloratura madness (Rameau's Platée), and grandly crying for vengeance but finding her heart too tender to impose it (Lully's Armide). The last work on this disc summarizes and parodies what has come before. Titled Rien de tout ("Nothing at all"), it was composed by one Nicolas Racot de Grandval in 1755. This 15-minute scene depicts an ill-tempered soprano who apparently needs to put her feet up for the evening and read Cosmopolitan. "What's this," she sings, "I am commanded to sing, I who am weary of music!" She tries in vain to impress her apathetic audience with airs that are mournful, frivolous, amorous, vengeful, restful, martial, or tender. Nothing moves her listeners. Exasperated, she announces, "Not knowing your tastes, I shall follow my own. Have someone else sing for you; I shall sing nothing at all." And so, fittingly, the CD ends. Rien de tout, which borrows the efforts of about a half-dozen earlier French composers to make its point, is a striking and unexpected bit of comedy.
Petitbon's voice sails up into the stratosphere with no loss of control or composure. She scales back her vibrato and lightens her tone most appropriately for this repertoire. I was impressed by her charm and by her intelligence, and also by her willingness to raise eyebrows, within reason: in the booklet note, she and Cohën-Akenine state that they "have not sought to make the rough places plain." Rightly so. The conductor leads his large band of instrumentalists stylishly. The program allows them to shine without competition from Petitbon in a few shorter numbers, and shine they do.
The recording venue, a French church, warms the sound without muddying it. Texts and translations are included in the booklet, and the essays are interesting and informative. Definitely worth consideration!
Copyright © 2002, Raymond Tuttle