Véronique Gens left a huge imprint in my mind and heart after her performance of Niobe Regina di Tebe at Covent Garden last year. She was the beating heart of a truly accomplished, odd ball piece by Steffani. Her voice was silken and alluring, her stage presence involving and I really don’t know what is the management of the Hall thinking booking such a great artist for just a one hour long recital of French songs. But we’ll gratefully accept what we can get!
This recital was a walk through in French chanson by three highlighted composers (Massenet, Gounod, Hahn); setting mainly 19th century literary grandees (Victor Hugo, Theophile Gaultier) guided expediently by the sympathetic and rounded playing of Susan Manoff (a great favourite of French opera divas on the concert platform).
The songs by Massenet sang were delivered with lightness of touch and panache. Almost as softly as Gens’ hand was lying against her side. Despite her blazing red/orange dress her approach to singing was about the understatement. She clearly inhabited the material but was not being predictable. Her silences and fading notes seemed as important as her crescendos. She transported us to fields and the side of the sleeping beauty, with such a simplicity of means that was unforced and relatable. When she asked O grands bois, pouvez vous me dire Que devient l’âme des oiseaux?/O forests, can you tell me what becomes of the birds’ soul? ,one doesn’t discount it as the absurd questioning by a mad lady, it’s more verging on a forest psychodrama.
Her La mort de la cigale was the first moment of reflective singing, up to that point everything was breezy and more sweet. The reflections on mortality by referring to the lifecycle of the cricket and how its end coincides with the end of the harvest. She allows the silences and the pacing that Manoff dictates to create a notional space where the meaning ferments. Sounds maybe pretentious to suggest that, but looking her straight in the eye while delivering the lines, there was a look of certainty and wisdom that was convincing. This section closed with a Spanish flavoured fantasy with a certain amount of sexiness. Her hands almost describing the touching of the loved one, helping to create the atmosphere of lust, the song closing in a triumphal loudly exhaled amour!
Her Gounod and de Polignac section was focusing on female characters again, from a rebellious belle, to the gorgeously sang Prenda garde/Beware! almost in a similar vein to some 15th century chant by Stile Antico she described a femme fatale that lies to have her own way and asked all listeners not to believe her and to beware. Just the turn of phrase every time she emphasises every warning is both amusing and faintly serious. The Lamento/Lament by de Polignac is a quiet, almost morbid tableaux giving respite and stillness to the recital and altering the faster rhythm up to that point. The fantasy of the young maid that wants to be taken to the land of love in Où voulez-vous aller?/Where is it you would go? was animated by the vocalise representing the billowing sails in the wind, a wonderful sound suggesting images with the smallest amount of detail, a shorthand weather forecast if ever there was one. The upcoming Sérénade/Serenade was a pulsating, almost danceable tune with her vocal hovering over it, so very simple but still a most beautiful lullaby imaginable. Voluptuous harmonies and expressive colouring added intimacy and flow.
The final section by Hahn was a more reflective set of songs as a whole. The outstanding highlight is Trois jours de vendange/Three days of vintaging describes the meeting with a beautiful girl at harvest and within 5 mins we are transported to her death three days later. The way she delivers the two crucial lines Le cercueil était couvert en velours, Le drap noir portait une double frange/The coffin draped in velvet, the black shroud had a double fringe under a heavy sounding piano is just exquisite. A certain Gallic melancholy feels the air, she was retelling this story with empathy and true sadness. This is the unique winning quality her singing conveys, it does feel genuine and just leads us up the path hand in hand.
As you can tell from the above I am totally in love with Véronique Gens and it’s a good thing to admit it too. She is truly an original, engaging artist that does not resort to easy histrionics but is a thoughtful, mature and complete singer. The velvety beauty of her voice, her lithe appearance and her gift for communication is an intoxicating mix. While I was being Wigmored (a great term to describe how the older members of the audience block all exists from the auditorium, thanks Twitter!) on the way out all you could hear were joyful expressions of appreciation and love. She surely acquired many more fans today (including my other half) with such a wonderfully radiant performance (despite a minor cold that she was nursing).
You can hear it all live within the UK on the iPlayer. It will also be repeated this coming Saturday at 14.00 on BBC Radio 3, so tune in or record it and keep it to listen again and again. There’s hoping that Wigmore Hall Live will release it in the near future, I’ll be first in line to get a copy! I’ll close this with a different rendition of the encore she sang by Poulenc.
Some tweets from the concert