The Art of French Song

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Classical vocal music—whether opera, arias, choral, or art song—can be an acquired taste. I wouldn’t call myself a devotee, but sometimes new classical vocal recordings really captivate me. Two such albums arrived recently, released at the same time by the French label Erato (part of Warner Classics), and both are collections of operatic arias and French art song.

French soprano Sabine Devieilhe. (Photo © Piergab) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Mirages by French soprano Sabine Devieilhe features a collection of late 19th-century opera and song by French composers such as Claude Debussy, André Messager, Léo Delibes, Jules Massenet, and Hector Berlioz, plus some lesser-known names like Charles Koechlin, Maurice Delage, and Ambroise Thomas. Devieilhe also performs a work from Stravinsky’s 1914 composition Le Rossignol (The Nightingale). She collaborates on this album with conductor François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles orchestra, which uses period instruments for authentic color and sound.

For me, the highlight of the album is Devieilhe’s magnificent duet with mezzo soprano Marianne Crebassa on the track “Viens Mallika” (aka Flower Duet) from Delibes’ opera Lakmé. I first heard this work in the soundtrack to the 1987 film I Heard the Mermaids Singing and have loved it since. Lakmé has been Devieilhe’s signature operatic role, and she features the three numbers on this album from that opera. Le Monde has praised Devieilhe as “impeccable—focused, uncontrived, captivating, beautiful.” See you if you agree:

The album Secrets from the aforementioned mezzo soprano Marianne Crebassa happens to be the other new release that I’ve enjoyed. Mezzo sopranos (or just “mezzos”) sing at a lower vocal range than sopranos, and a mezzo sounds more full and rich in texture. It’s like the difference between regular milk (soprano) and half-and-half (mezzo).

Crebassa’s album features French songs by Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Gabriel Fauré, and Henri Duparc. Most of the selections include lyrics by famous French poets like Paul Verlaine, Pierre Louÿs, and Théophile Gauthier. There’s also an edgy piece written by her accompanist, Turkish pianist Fazil Say. I particularly love Crebassa’s version of Ravel’s wordless vocal piece, “Vocalise-étude en forme de Habanera,” as well as her three songs based on Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis.

Here are Crebassa and Say recording Ravel’s Shéhérazade for the new album. Bachtrack has praised Crebassa’s performance of this work, calling her “an ideal interpreter, her voluptuous mezzo…richly plum-colored in her lower register.”

It’s wonderful to listen to and compare Devieilhe and Crebassa’s particular sounds, styles, and interpretations of these modern French masterpieces. The human voice is an incredible instrument. Every voice is unique, and these two stunning new albums celebrate its singular beauty.

Banner image of Marianne Crebassa by Simon Fowler.