Hervé Niquet, conductor
Alpha Classics, 2017
Even before you listen to the music or inform on the subject of Véronique Géns’s album Visions, its title gives you a hint of its programme. It focuses on the interest on the supernatural on the part of French composers of the Romantic age, when it was rendered as a “vision” that came true in metaphysical (with the appearance of ghosts) and psychological ways (with hallucinations and deliriums) «and since Romanticism goes into every last detail of the multiple facets of its heroes, closely examines their characters and drives their souls to the furthest extremes, it is hardly surprising that visions, in the operatic repertory, multiply to the point where they become a constantly reinterpreted commonplace», as the booklet notes report.
The theme of Vision is not an unusual one, as it recurs often in the production of the period, but soprano Véronique Géns and conductor Hervé Niquet remedy with a selection of arias that reveals a propensity for little known works and even for little known composers: next to the famous names of César Franck (Les Béatitudes and Rédemption), Camille Saint-Saëns (Étienne Marcel), Jules Massenet (La Vierge), Fromental Halévy (La Magicienne) and Georges Bizet (Clovis et Clotilde), there are the less famous Alfred Bruneau (Geneviève), Louis Niedermeyer (Stradella), Benjamin Godard (Les Guelfes), Félicien David (Lalla-Roukh) and Henry Février (Gismonda). The world of Visions is therefore a complete novelty, but only with difficulty the listener will be disappointed by what he or she will hear.
The performance of Véronique Géns, characterized by technical rigour and intensity, is source of continuous surprise and interest. Her voice is the true narrator and describes the journey through the supernatural world of 19th century music, a journey starting with Seigneur! est-ce bien moi que vous avez choisie? from Geneviève, remarkable for the incomparable softness of Géns’s phrasing which suggests the hesitation and then the resignation to martyrdom on the part of the heroine. The sweetness of the first aria is echoed in the second (Moi, du Sauver, je suis la Mère from Franck’s Les Béatitudes) only by the character’s name, that of the Virgin Mary, as this piece is sorrowful and glorious at the same time. Géns’s voice stresses the former aspect, while the orchestra emphasizes the latter, and the two blend surprisingly well together, conveying one of the most perfect ideas of the sacrifice of the Mother of God and of her glory.
In Louis Niedermeyer’s Stradella Ah!… Quel songe affreux!, Géns performs very well pain that borders on madness, while Sous le feuillage sombre from Félicien David’s Lalla-Rouch is a relatively quiet moment – only, of course, in comparison with the anxiety of the previous arias. From now on, Visions offers more lyrical arias, sharing with the others the intensity of feelings. In Sous le feuillage sombre, as in the next aria from Février’s Gismonda (Dit-elle vrai?), Saint-Saëns’s Étienne Marcel (Ah! Laissez-moi, ma mère!), Massenet’s La Vierge (Le dernier sommeil de la Vierge and Extase de la Vierge) and Halévy’s La Magicienne (Ce sentier nous conduit), the atmosphere is melancholic and poetical and Géns does justice to it with relaxed singing that expressed with delicacy many beautiful nuances. Same inspiration does not mean repetition and all the heroines to whom Géns gives voice has a different character: for example, Béatrix stands out for her desolation in the aria from Étienne Marcel, while in Massenet’s La Vierge Géns is clearly influenced by the ecstasy felt by the character.
A crystalline, silvery voice like Géns’s is perfect to sing a prayer and Clotilde’s Prière, ô doux souffle de l’ange! from Bizet’s Clovis and Clotilde is evocative and ardent, in contrast with the last aria of Vision, Le flot se lève from Franck’s Rédemption, where she is able to express the authoritativeness of the Archangel with firm but kind accents.
The different ways in which the supernatural influenced the plot of Romantic operas are very well illustrated by Véronique Géns in Visions and her deep understanding of so many different heroines allows her to portray their difficult situations with extreme, enthralling vividness and finesse.