Susan Graham says that all roads in the lyric mezzo repertoire lead to Dido in Berlioz’s magnum opus, Les Troyens. The third volume of Veronique Gens’s ‘Tragédiennes’ shows that many of those roads began with Gluck, who influenced Les Troyens greatly, as well as other composers who are barely known today. Thus, this Gluck-to-Verdi exploration of French opera arias (with some orchestra-only interludes) begins in an odd, little-known netherworld with strong roots in the past (Baroque-era plots are still being recycled) but with Germanic orchestral writing that echoes Haydn’s Sturm und Drang period and looks forwards to Weber’s Der Freischütz. No doubt this music has been neglected partly because it’s built on short, commonplace motifs that have a pithy intensity when played, as if a strong electrical current lies at its core – which is what happens here.
Méhul’s Ariodant, a flop at its 1799 premiere but now considered among the composer’s best, could pass for mature Gluck. And now that Gluck is returning to fashion, faux-Gluck is perfectly welcome. Gossec actually wrote ballet music for Gluck operas; you can tell in his 1782 Thésée, represented by a Medea revenge aria. Though Andromaque’s aria from Kreutzer’s 1801 Astyanax holds its own in a disc that also includes real Gluck as well as Dido’s final scene in Les Troyens, the piece doesn’t make me want to hear the whole opera. You know that you’re in arcane territory, though, when the Méhul aria begins with a feverish melodrama that has Gens reciting spoken text with conductor Rousset handling the orchestral punctuation with a brisk tempo and medium-weight orchestral textures.
Once past Berlioz (for which Gens is nearly ideal, with the right weight of voice and use of language), the disc grows a bit less interesting. Saint-Saëns’s Henry VIII and Massenet’s Hérodiade are represented by some dramatically diffuse scenes that show these second-rate composers at somewhat less than their peak. Perhaps because there’s less a sense of reclamation from obscurity, performances feel less involved. Or maybe it’s a matter of alternative involvement.
Gens’s voice has grown into a fairly lush instrument that, at least in these studio conditions, is fully up to the tasks at hand. But one’s main point of reference in the Massenet/Verdi repertoire comes from powerhouses such as Renée Fleming and Karita Mattila. Gens suggests that kind of amplitude is not needed, as the more sophisticated orchestral writing shoulders the expressive burden more equally with the vocal line. Perhaps the music doesn’t require a vocal ‘hard sell’ that’s become so customary you hardly realise it’s there – until, as on this disc, it’s refreshingly absent. I chose not to feel underwhelmed by the end of this recording. Artists this thoughtful often make more and more sense over repeated hearings.