Schumann: Widmung, Frauenliebe und Leben; Mozart, Donizetti, Rossini: opera arias

Stephanie d’Oustrac mezzo soprano, Pascal Jourdan piano

Abbatiale de Paunat, Dordogne, 16 August 2010 5 stars

Stephanie d’Oustrac One of the joys of the French countryside during the long summer break is the plethora of music festivals that are centred on chateau courtyards, bastides, churches: everything from staged opera to instrumental recitals, often late at night and under the stars, can be found, with music to suit all tastes. The forces are often local and the standard varies enormously – but every so often you find yourself in an unlikely setting experiencing a world class artist in a fabulous programme. One such experience this summer was provided by the young French mezzo Stephanie d'Oustrac, who gave a truly outstanding demonstration of the singer's art: Robert and Clara Schumann in the first half of her programme, operatic lollipops in the second. On this showing d’Oustrac is bound for the very top, more than confirming the early promise she has shown at Glyndebourne and in the recording studio. She is a singer to watch.

Widmung opened the programme as a warm-up and already the voice held hints of excitement over what was to come. D’Oustrac has a full, rich, dramatic mezzo with plenty of Heft in the lower register, a glorious middle and no signs of strain at the top, where her voice lightens considerably. Her German diction was clear, with only a hint of French accentuation in the 'soft' vowels. The opening number was followed by four charming but slightly inconsequential songs by Clara Schumann, well delivered and sensitively accompanied by the excellent Pascal Jourdan. And then we came to the centrepiece of the first half, and indeed of the whole recital: Robert Schumann's endlessly fascinating opus 42, Frauenliebe und Leben.

D’Oustrac has clearly thought long and hard about the piece and has decided on the narrative drama she wishes to convey. From the artless, slightly breathy 'Seit ich ihn gesehen' that opens the cycle – a young girl's attempt to convey the overpowering sensations of first love – to the aching hurt of 'Nun hast Du mir den ersten Schmerz getan', she lived and breathed this music in a performance that was in turn exhilarating, dramatic, playful and finally utterly bleak and tragic. Tempi were on the fast side overall but d’Oustrac’s musical logic was clear and utterly compelling. In the first song, despite the fast tempo, she managed to convey a wonderful quality of inwardness at the phrase 'Wie im wachen Traume/schwebt sein Bild mir vor', constraining her tone to a hushed pianissimo, only to open up to full power again for the glorious downwards swoop on 'aus tiefstem Dunkel'.

Singers divide on whether to treat the ornamentation in the second song, 'Er, der herrlichste von allen' as fast or slow moving trills, mere grace notes around the melody or more extended appoggiatura phrases. D'Oustrac inclined to the second school and produced a ravishing stream of melody, each note beautifully produced and linked to its neighbours in almost bel canto fashion. Her articulation of the sublime 'Selig nur und traurig sein' was pure magic.

'Ich kann's nicht fassen, nicht glauben' was taken urgently and ardently, with minimum rubato even in the final verse. By now d'Oustrac seemed almost to have forgotten her audience, so immersed was she in the many-layered challenges of what often sounds like Schumann's simplest music but is at heart a deeply complex work. What I noted was a warm tonal quality, even in the quietest passages, an ability to soar into the soprano register with minimum loss of mezzo vibrancy, and a well-modulated voice with immense reserves of power: in the seventh song, 'An meinem Herzen', I suddenly heard a future Fricka in the making (but not for a while yet, I hope!)

I had heard Christiane Oelze sing Frauenliebe und Leben in this year's Aldeburgh Festival a few weeks back, in a cool and slightly perfunctory reading (I concluded that Oelze was not in full voice that evening), so I listened with particular attention to the last song, 'Nun hast Du mir den ersten Schmerz getan'. D'Oustrac produced her most powerful, dramatic singing of the evening here, focusing and relishing every poignant note against the sparse piano accompaniment (and in the process, reducing herself to tears by the time of the piano postlude, so deeply felt was her performance). In short, she gave a fabulous account of the piece. It was very much a young person's account of Schumann, with fire and passion in passages that are sometimes sung as pure, nostalgic reflection, but on its own terms it was both captivating and completely convincing.

The second half of the recital was less interesting musically, but confirmed that d’Oustrac is already a very fine, versatile and accomplished singer. I enjoyed her characterisation of Sesto's music from La Clemenza di Tito more than I liked her Dorabella in Smanie implacabile (in which she lost her musical line at times for the sake of dramatic effect). I appreciated her bel canto in the Countess of Nottingham's opening aria from Roberto Devereux, and I succumbed totally to her vividly characterised but fantastically well-controlled 'Una voce poco fa', Rosina's showpiece aria from The Barber of Seville. This had the lot: control right at the top and at the bottom of the voice, precise articulation, a vivid sense of wordplay and power at all the right moments. It evoked tumultuous applause and inevitable demands for encores: among the latter I would highlight her Carmen, in a highly dramatic 'La mort', and her delicate account of the delightful miniature by Reynaldo Hahn, 'An Chloris'.

My colleague Alexandra Coghlan described the shimmering inward stillness of 'Cara speme' that d'Oustrac achieved so magically as Sesto in Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne last year. She certainly has that ability to concentrate the sound, to focus and to project inward stillness in recital too. This was a terrific evening of music making from an up-and-coming star singer.

By Mike Reynolds

Photo: Stephanie d’Oustrac

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