Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux has assembled a small, but impressive discography of mostly 'niche' titles over the last half-dozen years. In addition to discs of French mélodies and Schumann lieder, she has made strong contributions to several complete operas by Vivaldi – all under an exclusive contract with the Naïve label. Despite the favorable impression she made in the Vivaldi series, I was completely unprepared for the spectacular quality of her singing on this new collection of French opera arias. This is one of the most uniformly excellent recitals I have heard in a long while.
Though she calls herself a 'contralto', Lemieux sounds very much like a traditional mezzo-soprano: her voice encompasses both low and high registers quite comfortably, she has excellent command of coloratura, and she can vary her tone quality with a diverse palette of colors, resulting in singing that is rich in detail and endlessly intriguing to the ear. The contralto is a noticeably rare vocal classification these days, and preconceived notions that include a bottomless well of low notes and thick, foggy tone would be misplaced concerning Lemieux. On the contrary, at her command, the voice can shimmer like sunlight, bounce playfully, or ring out commandingly as the context requires. She also offers the stereotypical contralto sobriety when needed, as well as smoky sensuality, and even the bloom and gravitas of a falcon soprano.
Frankly, it is difficult to find anything to criticize: this disc is sensational from start to finish and sets an artistic standard that is rarely achieved in commercial recordings. One of the most satisfying aspects is the obvious care and intelligence with which the arias were chosen, representing a broad spectrum of music from the nineteenth century, with particular emphasis on the latter decades when lower female voices came more into fashion – particularly in France. Historically, the high soprano voice tended to dominate the attentions of audiences and the imaginations of composers from Vivaldi through Verdi. There were a few noteworthy mezzo roles composed during the bel canto period, but prior to that time, the lower registers of the female voice were seldom a focus for composers. These are generalizations, of course, but no one can argue that assembling a program of plum arias for contralto is significantly more challenging than for any other voice type.
It is especially pleasant that so many 'rare' arias have been included. Alongside well-known selections from Bizet's Carmen and Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila, Lemieux convincingly portrays a wide variety of characters ranging from Cherubini's Neris (Médée), through the title character in Massenet's Hérodiade and Halévy's Odette (Charles VI), to Clytemnestre from Wormser's ultra-rare, award-winning cantata ('Premier Grand Prix de Rome') of the same name. In each scene, Lemieux offers a detailed, vibrant characterization that transcends the notes on the page. The polished command she displays through dynamic modulations and textual phrasing, alone, is worth the price of the disc. Her French sounds faultlessly idiomatic, and it's easy to understand the texts, since her diction is superb in every register and at every dynamic level. She vividly depicts Hérodiade's unwavering demands for vengeance, Mignon's innocence, Charlotte's lovelorn desperation, and both Carmen and Dalila's overt sensuality.
Such beguiling interpretations would not be possible without a secure singing technique, and Lemieux betrays no weaknesses. The voice is absolutely even from top to bottom, the registers are well integrated, and she can access both dynamic extremes throughout her range. Her passagework is clean, and she offers both a fine trill and superb breath-control. Best of all, Lemieux's charismatic personality imbues each of her roles with grace and dignity. The latter is especially welcome in the two arias by Berlioz, both of which are intensely moving. And as if to throw a sudden spotlight on a completely different aspect of her personality, Lemieux includes a 'bonus' selection from Offenbach's La fille du Tambour-major. There is no documentation for this light-hearted 'encore' performance, and I almost missed it, since it is embedded within the final track after a long pause of silence.
Conductor Fabien Gabel finds just the right mood for each selection, and faithfully supports Lemieux while avoiding being reduced to mere accompanist. He leads the Orchestre National de France with strength and an excellent feel for the individual flavors and personalities of the different composers. The instrumentalists bring out the many colors in these fascinating scores, and offer admirable solo turns when required; Philippe Hanon's bassoon solos in the lengthy, mesmerizing aria from Cherubini's Médée are particularly impressive. I cannot recommend this disc highly enough. It will easily make my list for 'Best of the Year'.