In the Shadow of the Opéra – Lucy Crowe, Christopher Maltman & Graham Johnson at Wigmore Hall [French mélodies]

In the Shadow of the Opéra

On Wings of Song – Love in flight
Tombez mes alles!
Au rossignol
La Coccinelle
Le sais-tu?
Lucien Hillemacher
Si mes vers avaient des alles

Mélodies or Arias?
Fleur jetée, Op.39/2
La Chanson du pêcheur, Op.4/1
Horace et Lydie

Vers le Sud – Exoticisms
Maid of Athens
Le Nil
Guitares et mandolins

Seascapes and Landscapes
Douce mer
Les Berceaux, Op.23/1
Eau printanière
Nuit d’étoiles

Lucy Crowe (soprano), Christopher Maltman (baritone) & Graham Johnson (piano)

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 4 January, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Graham JohnsonNote the acute accent in the title of this recital. These are composers who wrote not merely for the opera, but for the Opéra (de Paris) – hence the absence from Graham Johnson’s cunningly-constructed programme of any songs by Ravel, a composer whose one-act masterpieces for the lyric stage were unveiled elsewhere than at the Palais Garnier. in any case, on this occasion ‘opera’ proved to be little more than a flag of convenience – a thematic ensign that caught the breeze as two gifted singers explored some of France’s most charming, if lesser-known, musical channels.

The expressive nature of the mélodie is a different creature from the stage in that its words are poetry, not storytelling – art and not craft – so interpreters need to sublimate musical expression to the needs of the text. The great French song-composers recognised this distinction and created accordingly for the voice; however, not every performer, even among native speakers, avoids the temptation to place vocal beauty ahead of textual coloration. Happily, in Lucy Crowe and Christopher Maltman we had artists who know their oignons.

Christopher Maltman. ©Levon Biss The four clusters into which Johnson divided his farandole of songs had more to do with expediency than necessity. A highlight of the first (largely bewinged) group was Bizet’s wittily elegant setting of Victor Hugo’s enchanting poem La Coccinelle (The ladybird), in which a youth is distracted from the prospect of his first kiss by the presence of the insect on his beloved’s neck. Maltman, in prime vocal form, presented his shy, callow teenager with tender wit. His bashful hesitation at “A seize ans, on est farouche” (At sixteen one is shy) was a delight. Elsewhere the distinguished baritone was never less than forthright; too loud, perhaps, in Fauré’s La Chanson du pêcheur but simple and affecting both in Lalo’s Guitare and in Reynaldo Hahn’s uncharacteristically ascetic setting of Eau printanière (Spring water).

Lucy Crowe. Photograph: Sussie AhlburgLucy Crowe was at her exquisite best in the delicate, tripping consonants of Massenet’s Le sais-tu? (Do you know?) and in the pair of Debussy songs, Nuits d’étoiles (Night of stars) and Apparition – together a winning calling-card for Mélisande, which is surely a role she is destined to sing. To convince entirely as a singer of French, though, this gracious and talented soprano will need to improve her enunciation of vowels, for trickier words such as “gazouillements” and “dièses” regularly found her out, as did simpler distinctions such as that between “du” and “tout”.

Graham Johnson’s choice of repertoire was wholly selfless: the songs had to suit his singers first, his fingers second. Yet this peerless accompanist panned for gold in the unlikeliest waters, creating interest through his artistry even where the music itself held precious little, as in the unimaginative note-spinning of Gounod’s Au rossignol (To the nightingale) and Lucien Hillemacher’s cod-courtly ‘Villanelle’. (His brother Paul was also a composer.) Johnson revelled, though, in the bobbing-boat figures that underpinned Meyerbeer’s Mina and in the near-orchestral challenges of Berlioz’s Zaïde.

Each singer sang alternately, beginning with Maltman, and the trio of artists were heard together on just three occasions: twice in the duets by Massenet that closed each half, of which Joie was the more musically satisfying as well as the most operatically-flavoured setting of the recital. Best of them, though, was an irresistible setting by Saint-Saëns of Hugo’s short love poem Viens! (Come!) – putting the melody in mélodie with a charm that ensured its welcome return as the encore. If Hyperion has plans to record this 73-minute programme, then that would be good news indeed. As ever, Graham Johnson wrote an illuminating introductory note.

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