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Véronique Gens - Nuits - Opera News

When it comes to French repertoire of the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century, there are orchestral songs and songs for voice and piano, but not a lot in between. Soprano Véronique Gens and piano quintet I Giardini set out to address this deficit by commissioning Alexandre Dratwicki to create piano-quintet transcriptions of Belle Époque mélodies by beloved composers. Gens’s rich, dusky soprano is the perfect conveyance for the selections, especially in the midrange keys. The songs are grouped to reflect four phases of night: twilight, dreams, nightmares and the surreal, intoxicating light sleep just before waking. Some of Dratwicki’s arrangements are more successful than others, and none are as idiomatic and persuasive as those entries originally scored by their composers for this instrumentation: Chausson’s “Chanson perpétuelle,” Fauré’s “La lune blanche luit dans les bois,” and Guillaume Lekeu’s “Nocturne.” Fauré’s string writing in particular is transparent and evocative, clearly envisioned as another voice rather than accompaniment. The only unison moment calls attention to an echo of his song “Lydia.” Dratwicki, on the other hand, frequently defaults to unison strings or has the strings doubling the vocal line. The result is distracting, especially in “Après un rêve,” which comes off as wooden and earthbound despite Gens’s best efforts.

Other arrangements do the trick nicely, like the colorfully running strings in Berlioz’s “L’Île inconnue,” which Gens inhabits with openhearted abandon. Hahn’s “La dernière valse” achieves liftoff with some well-placed pizzicato. If Gens is more formal than one expects in Édith Piaf’s iconic “La vie en rose,” she loosens up in André Messager’s “J’ai deux amants,” concluding her justification for multiple lovers with a charmingly breathless “So just think…two of them!” The piano ripples over the strings in the modal “Désir de l’Orient” by Saint-Saëns, and I Giardini play with virtuosic vigor in an extended instrumental postlude. One of the loveliest cuts on the disk is the Lekeu; curiously it’s he, and not Dratwicki in “La vie en rose,” who manages the trompe de l’oreille of making the strings sound like an accordion. In Massenet’s sprightly “Nuit d’Espagne,” Gens sings with delight and desire as if her dreams were invaded by sprites. She’s mellow and elegiac in “Ceux qui, parmi les morts d’amour” by Guy Ropartz, which follows on the heels of “Chanson perpétuelle.” In the Chausson, Gens conveys all the weariness of sorrow, while I Giardini capture the pain of abandonment with keening strings. Gens’s emotional capitulation on the final phrase sounds like she’s throwing herself into the river below. But, of course, it’s only a dream.

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Opera News
22 October 2020