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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 8 MAY 2012 — Two recital albums on Decca have recently come our way featuring two "house"singers. Renée Fleming’s Poèmes shows off the soprano, highlighting the extraordinary vocal beauty in exotic repertoire, thus demonstrating the soprano’s eagerness to lead her fans outside the customary paths. The most familiar item, Ravel’s Shéhérazade, is given one of the slowest performances I have ever encountered, totally exaggerating the languor that is the hallmark of the piece. The colors of the voice match those of the orchestra in Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, a far more subjective interpretation than, say, that of Françoise Pollet under Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra. Alan Gilbert and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France sustain her interpretation of both works. The other two works are by Henri Dutilleux, an early Deux Sonnets de Jean Cassou revised for Fleming, and the recent Le temps de l’horloge, written for the soprano. The latter was recorded at the world premiere with Seiji Ozawa leading the Orchestre Nationale de France. The 95-year old composer is still at the top of his form, even though one might prefer Poulenc’s setting of Desnos’ Dernier poème. Fleming’s excursions to the lower notes are not always convincing, but she deserves full marks for her espousal of Messiaen and Dutilleux.

Poemes: Ravel, Messiaen, Dutilleux
Renee Fleming, soprano

Alan Gilbert (conductor), Myung-Whun Chung (conductor), Daniele Gatti (conductor), Seiji Ozawa (conductor), Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Orchestre National de France (Orchestra)
Decca Classics

Nathalie Manfrino is less familiar to the international public but her rapidly expanding career and voice present a challenge to recording engineers. She has chosen an all-Massenet program, much of which is little-known, and for that all credit. She is aided by Michel Plasson and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. Alas, the vibrato that affects the soprano’s high notes is not always under control, and the close-up miking of the voice in fact drains the colors and places the orchestra far in the background. And the sopranos for whom Massenet composed the various works varied enormously in type of voice. But it is the quality and quantity of the selections that provides the highest interest (La Vierge, Marie-Magdeleine, Le Roi de Lahore, Sapho, Grisélidis, Esclarmonde, Cléopâtre, Ariane, alongside the more familiar Hérodiade, Manon and Le Cid). Two non-operatic selections include the well-known Élégie and an appalling Ave Maria set to the Méditation from Thaïs.

Massenet: Meditations
Nathalie Manfrino, soprano

Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo
Michel Plasson, conductor
Decca Classics

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor at Culturekiosque. He has been opera critic for Opera (U.K.) and Opera News (U.S.A) for over thirty years and was elected to the International Music Critics Association (UNESCO) in 1996. Long before the existence of "blogs", Mr. Kasow kept an Opera Diary for Culturekiosque. Opera fans can access the archive of his intensely personal, ongoing commentary on the opera world here.   

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