Arias by Gluck, Bellini, Massenet, Halevy, Rossini, Donizetti, Berlioz, Gounod and Saint-Säens

Marina Viotti  Mezzo-soprano

Les Talens Lyrique
Christophe Rousset  Conductor

Aparte AP290
Full price

The Review

Aria selections are not my favourite form of CD release but this one has much merit.

There is a good musical and historical motive for the selection, centred on the roles and composers associated with the darling of European singers from the middle years of the 19th century, Pauline Garcia (Viardot being her married name). Last year was her bicentenary.

Another good reason is giving a showcase to Marina Viotti, who is developing into a singer of prodigious quality. She has the power, the range and the musicality to make the most of the arias this eclectic group of composers threw at their contemporary. Viotti makes one realise just how good Viardot must have been to impress them – and for them to know that she could cope with their requirements.

Viotti and Rousset grab the arias from Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi by the scruff of the neck and give them a good roughing up, to superb effect. Yet she can sound sweet too, as in the next track on the album, O mes Soeurs, from Marie-Magdaleine by Massenet. It was actually the last role Viardot ever sang on stage, in the Spring of 1873, and it was her way of supporting the emerging composer. After that, she became la grande dame of Parisian music life for a further 37 years.

That staple of any mezzo’s audition pieces, Una voce poco fa, often dubbed by weary competition judges ‘a voice too far’, from Rossini’s Barber of Seville is delivered by Viotti with superb agility and coloratura finesse. She has top as well as bottom, one might say. The same is true of her second bit of Rossini, the cavatina Bel raggio lusinghier, from Semiramide.

The recital gets better and better as it unfolds. The later excerpts allow her to show how she can support lyrical line without excessive vibrato but plenty of passion. Je vais mourir from Berlioz’ Les  Troyens is luscious and the following number, O ma lyre immortelle from Gounod’s Sappho, is utterly enchanting. I caught this on the radio a few weeks ago without knowing who was singing and just melted. The disc is worth buying for this 8 minute track alone. I keep turning the CD back to hear it again.

The playing of Les Talens Lyriques, in a period informed style with only 15 violins and five each of violas and cellos, is crisp and accurate, every attack firmly defined, every dotted quaver audible. This is clear in the accompaniments but Rousset lets them demonstrate it without soloist in two overtures, that from Semiramide and Donizetti’s La Favourite. These are more than interludes; they are stand-out examples of how exciting a really well drilled chamber orchestra can be. Rousset is always an impressive leader of an ensemble. He listens to the singer with real sympathy while giving the players the help they need to be certain of the exact timing. Here he is at his best.