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Confidence: French Romantic arias
Julien Behr (tenor)
Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon / Pierre Bleuse
rec. 2017, Auditorium de Lyon, France
French texts with English translations provided
ALPHA CLASSICS 401 [65.37]

Collections of French Romantic arias seem very much in vogue. Since 2015 there have been a number of splendid albums released (I have listed these below after the track details). Only in the last few weeks, on Alpha Classics I have reviewed the outstanding album Offenbach Colorature, a collection of French Romantic opéra, opéra comique and opérette arias from soprano Jodie Devos, a release marking the two hundredth anniversary of Offenbach. Contemporaneously on the Alpha label is this new album titled Confidence from tenor Julien Behr; another excellent collection of French Romantic arias.

As an admirer of French grand opéra, opéra-comique and opérette of the Romantic period I am especially drawn to this fascinating collection. For his debut solo album Julien Behr, in a similar approach to Jodie Devos’ Offenbach Colorature, has selected a fascinating programme after consultation with the artistic director of Palazzetto Bru Zane (the Centre de Musique Romantique Française), the organisation concerned with rediscovering and promoting French Romantic musical heritage principally of the nineteenth century. Many of the composers represented such as Gounod, Delibes, Bizet and Lehár are well known to opera lovers but others less so; Benjamin Godard is a composer I have never previously encountered in opera, and Victorin de Joncières is totally unknown, at least to me.

Lyon born tenor Behr is mostly associated with Mozart operas and bel canto which is his core repertory, so this selection of French Romantic arias is, as he states the direction that his voice is taking. The collection is generally associated with the Romantic voice type grand ténor d'opéra-comique also named ténor de demi-caractère having strength, being capable of subtlety and expressing variations of feelings and emotions described in the notes as “between shadows and light…” There are fourteen tracks on the album by twelve composers of which Behr sings ten arias and a show song with the remaining three being short orchestral works. Most of the arias are from native French language operas predominantly premièred in Paris, six at the Opéra-Comique, one at the Théâtre Lyrique and one introduced in Brussels, Belgium. The two other famous arias that Behr has chosen to sing here in French are best known in their original German librettos from one each of Lehár’s two operettas La veuve joyeuse (Die lustige Witwe - The Merry Widow) and Le pays du sourire (Das Land des Lächelns - The Land of Smiles). These French versions of the Lehár opérettes were premièred in Paris at Apollo Théâtre and Gaîté-Lyrique respectively.

This is congenial and rewarding terrain for Behr who clearly relishes the opportunity to record these Romantic arias and captures the very essence of the period. In a performance of such abiding intelligence, Behr’s warm attractive tone and high level of consistency across these arias are impressive. There are several works that I especially relish. From Gounod’s four act opéra Cinq-Mars the prelude and cavatina ‘A vous, ma mère... Ô chère et vivante image’ is a vocally persuasive example of Behr’s smooth tone which is never uncomfortably over-bright. Jean’s aria ‘J'ai vu la bannière de France!’ from Delibes’ three act opéra comique Jean de Nivelle is a fine example of Behr’s ability to produce convincing levels of emotion and here one can acknowledge the hero’s sense of pride and honour for the banner of France. A memorable aria which deserves to be much more widely known is ‘J'aimais la vieille maison grise’ from Messager’s Fortunio, a four act comédie lyrique. Behr delights in his portrayal of this emotional scene and air with the feeling of reflection and regret lying heavy. From Godard’s four act opéra Jocelyn the berceuse ‘Cachès dans cet asile’ is exquisitely sung by Behr, who demonstrates lovely smooth delivery in his high register and so impressively sustaines his phrasing. The best-known aria on the album is ‘Je t'ai donné mon cœur’ (You are my heart's delight) from Lehár’s opérette Le pays du sourire (The Land of Smiles) made famous by Richard Tauber, which is one of the world’s best loved melodies. I’ve heard impressive recent recordings of Sou-Chong’s aria in German by Piotr Beczała and Jonas Kaufmann, and here Behr sings admirably, providing considerable enjoyment.

Chosen to provide an agreeable breather from the arias, the first of the three orchestral works is Augusta Holmès’ La Nuit Et L'amour, an interlude from her ode-symphonie Ludus pro patria. Originally for solo piano, Chabrier’s Habanera is presented here in the composer’s orchestration and finally there is also Duparc’s poème nocturne Aux Étoiles. The top-drawer playing of Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon under Pierre Bleuse ranges from beautiful elegance to vigorous purpose. To conclude the album Behr provides what is described as an additional song by Charles Trenet ‘Vous qui passez sans me voir’ (arranged by Arthur Lavandier) which we are told is important to him on a personal level. Unlike the other arias this is more of a big show tune which might have been sung by say Jacques Brel or Charles Aznavour. But, after all, it’s Behr’s album so why shouldn’t he indulge himself? I for one love it.

The engineering team for Alpha has provided first class sound quality, being clear and warm with an especially splendid balance between singer and orchestra. This is a handsomely presented album and the booklet essay ‘I saw the Banner of France!’ written by Alexandre Dratwicki (musicological director of Palazzetto Bru Zane) provides a detailed and interesting essay of high quality.

Convincingly performed by Julien Behr without any suggestion of routine this captivating collection of French Romantic arias is extremely desirable.

Michael Cookson
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
1. ‘A vous, ma mère...Ô chère et vivante image’ (Opéra Cinq-Mars, premièred Opéra-Comique, Paris 1877) [6.24]
Léo DELIBES (1836-1891)
2. ‘J'ai vu la bannière de France!’ (Opéra comique Jean de Nivelle, premièred Opéra-Comique, Paris 1880) [5.47]
André MESSAGER (1853-1929)
3. ‘J'aimais la vieille maison grise’ (Comédie lyrique Fortunio, premièred Opéra-Comique, Paris 1907) [2.56]
Victorin JONCIÉRES (1839-1903)
4. ‘Parlons de moi, le voulez vous?... Oui J'aime, hélas!’ (Drame lyrique Le chevalier de Jean, premièred Opéra-Comique, Paris 1885) [5.07]
Augusta HOLMÉS (1847-1903)
5. ‘La nuit et L'amour’ - interlude (Ode-symphonie, Ludus pro patria, premiered Société des Concerts du Conservatoire in Paris, 1888) [5.57]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
6. ‘Sérénade du Henry Smith. Partout des cris de joie’ (Opéra La jolie fille de Perth, premièred Théâtre Lyrique, Paris 1867) [4.09]
Benjamin GODARD (1849-1895)
7. ‘Berceuse: Cachès dans cet asile’ (Opéra Jocelyn, premièred Le Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels February 1888: later Théâtre-Lyrique-National, Paris October 1888) [4.47]
8. ‘Prendre le dessin d'un bijou... Fantaisie aux divins mensonge’ (Opéra Lakmé, premièred Opéra-Comique, Paris 1883) [5.25]
Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948)
9. ‘Air de Sou-Chong. Je t'ai donné mon cœur’ (Opérette romantique Le pays du sourire, 1929 - Das Land des Lächelns / The Land of Smiles). - French première of French version Gaîté-Lyrique, Paris 1932) [4.06]
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
10. ‘Habanera’ (originally solo piano 1885 - orchestrated by the composer 1888) [4.27]
Ambroise THOMAS (1811-1896)
11. ‘Elle ne croyait pas, dans sa candeur naïve’ (Opéra comique / Opéra Mignon, premièred Opéra-Comique, Paris 1866) [3.55]
12. ‘Air de Camille. Viens dans ce joli pavillon’ (Opérette La veuve joyeuse, 1905 - Die lustige Witwe / The Merry Widow) - French première of French version Apollo Théâtre 1909) [3.48]
Henri DUPARC (1848-1933)
13. ‘Aux Étoiles’, Poème nocturne (entr'acte pour un drame inédit) (1874, rev. 1911) [4.55]
Charles TRENET (1913-2001), arranged Arthur LAVANDIER (b. 1987)
14. ‘Vous, qui passez sans me voir’ [3.54]

Recently released albums of French Romantic opera/operetta music:
L'Opéra, Jonas Kaufmann (Sony)
Mirages, Sabine Devieilhe (Erato)
A Tribute to Gilbert Duprez, John Osborn (Delos)
Paris, Mon Amour, Sonya Yoncheva (Sony)
The French Collection, Piotr Beczała (Deutsche Grammophon)
Visions, Véronique Gens (Alpha)
Meyerbeer – Grand Opera, Diana Damrau (Erato)
Espoir, Michael Spyres (Opera Rara)
Écho, Joyce El-Khoury (Opera Rara)
Héroïque, Bryan Hymel (Warner)
Oh, Boy!, Marianne Crebassa (Erato)
Anita Rachvelishvili, debut collection - containing 6 French Grand Opera arias (Sony)
Mirror(s), Elsa Dreisig (Erato)
Offenbach Colorature, Jodie Devos (Alpha Classics)


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