Julien Behr: Confidence
For his first solo album, Julien Behr explores repertory associated with a voice type known in 19th-century France as the ténor de demi-caractère. This was not, it must be said, a singer who performed what we would now call ‘character roles’ but a lyric tenor, capable of refinement as well as power, usually heard in opéras comiques, in contrast to the bigger, more heroic voice required for post-Meyerbeerian grand opéra.
Gounod’s Roméo and Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon are among the best-known roles written for such a voice, though Behr casts his net wider to encompass both the relatively familiar (Gérald in Delibes’s Lakmé, Wilhelm in Thomas’s Mignon) and the little known (the arias by Messager and Joncières). After the turn of the 20th century, the ténor de demi-caractère would also have been expected to tackle leading roles in popular Viennese operettas, and Behr accordingly includes arias by Lehár, which he sings in French. The disc is dedicated, meanwhile, to his late grandparents, in whose memory he adds Charles Trenet’s ‘Vous, qui passez sans me voir,’ which was his grandfather’s favourite song.
He has an attractive voice, with a touch of metal in the sound under pressure, an easy ring at the top and a beguiling warmth of tone when singing softly. Many of the arias are reflective and deal with memory, nostalgia and regret, which runs the risk of emotional sameness. Behr’s characterisations are sharply differentiated, however, and Messager’s Fortunio, dreaming of the house where he grew up, is carefully contrasted with both Delibes’s Jean de Nivelle, the military man reflecting on his childhood in a once unspoilt France now ravaged by conflict, and Joncières’s Chevalier Jean, another soldier, longing to be reunited with the woman he loved in peacetime.
He’s good in Lehár, too. ‘Je t’ai donné mon coeur’ (‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’) is very ardent, if fractionally slow, and he sounds really seductive singing ‘Viens dans ce joli pavillon’ (‘Komm in den kleinen Pavillon’) from La veuve joyeuse. ‘Vous, qui passez’, meanwhile, has bags of charm, the mix of wit and regret deftly caught. The arrangement, by Arthur Lavandier, is on the brash side but allows the Lyon Opéra Orchestra under Pierre Bleuse to show off their credentials as an authentic-sounding big-band. Elsewhere, their playing is elegant and refined, with some finely shaped woodwind solos and a beautiful sheen on the strings.