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CD Review

Hector Berlioz

  • Les nuits d'été
  • La mort de Cléopâtre
  • La captive
  • La belle voyageuse
  • Zaïde
Véronique Gens, soprano
Orchestre de l'Opéra National de Lyon/Louis Langrée
Virgin Classics 5 45422 2 DDD 61:17
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Berlioz's ecstatic Les nuits d'été has been recorded many times. It is curious, however, that so few of the work's prominent recordings feature French sopranos. After the great Régine Crespin (Decca 460973-2), I draw a blank.

Gens is French (I assume), attractive, and still quite young. Until now, I've encountered her only on period instruments recordings, where she made a positive and characterful impression. Predictably, she and Langrée embody the French virtues of charm, grace, and evenness in these works. It would be hard to find performances less gauche and obvious than these.

Langrée's tempos throughout this CD are unusually fast. His Nuits d'été requires 26 minutes, in contrast to Crespin/ansermet (just under 31 minutes) and Janet Baker/Barbirolli (well over 31 minutes). His "Villanelle" is breathless, and several of the movements are more than a minute faster than ansermet's. As a result, the music gains freshness but loses some of its dark colors and melancholy. Also, compared to Crespin and Baker (a genuine mezzo-soprano), to say nothing of Jessye Norman and Leontyne Price (who also recorded memorable versions of Les nuits d'été in their time), Gens lacks richness in lower registers of her voice. Her characters are less grande dame, more jeune fille, and innocence overshadows experience. Gens reminds me of a romantic young girl reciting love poetry on the hillside, but not necessarily experiencing its subject first-hand. Her naturalistic readings of the French texts preclude the interpretive emphases that make performances such as Crespin's and Baker's so memorable. On the other hand, if you find Baker or Crespin forced, then Gens might satisfy you perfectly.

La mort de Cléopâtre, an early work for Berlioz, but one that displays considerable creativity and innovation, is difficult to pull off on disc, perhaps because it is so episodic. Gens/Langrée are only a minute faster than Baker/Gibson, but they find a tautness here missing from competitive recordings.

Two of the three remaining songs were included – unforgettably – on the Nuits d'été LP recorded by Eleanor Steber in 1954. Gens is a very different singer than Steber, whose big gestures and full tone are answered by Gens's complete lack of anything resembling affectation.

All in all, this is not a perfect CD, but the performances rise and fall on their own merit, not on the pale imitation of their predecessors. Anyone who loves this music will get something new out of Gens and Langrée.

Texts and translations are included. The recording was made in the Opéra National de Lyon, and it sounds fine, although the relationship between Gens and the orchestra is a little unnatural.

Copyright © 2002, Raymond Tuttle