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Recordings

The Diva Live — Wilhelmenia Fernandez & Bruno Fontaine
19 Jan 2006

The Diva Live — Wilhelmenia Fernandez & Bruno Fontaine

In 1981 Wilhelminia Fernandez became somewhat of a cult figure when the French thriller “Diva” appeared on the screens. For a time her “Ebben, ne andro lontano” from La Wally almost became a hit and several commercials used a small part of the aria.

The Diva Live — Wilhelmenia Fernandez & Bruno Fontaine

Wilhelmenia Fernandez, soprano, and Bruno Fontaine, piano

Transart Productions TR 110 [CD]

 

The stunning beauty of the lady no doubt helped her as well but her career never really took flight. The reason was a simple one. The boss of the Paris Opéra had her make her début in La Bohème as ….Musetta and right he was. But a lot of his colleagues preferred to type-cast her as Aida. I heard her myself in the role and felt that the voice was simply not suited. She probably realized it herself as for two years she sang “Carmen Jones” at the Old Vic.

But thanks to that movie she is still somewhat of a star in France and this CD is a reminder of the 2002 live concert she gave in the Grand Théâtre of Reims, a magnificent historic city in the North of France, known for its cathedral and as the capital of champagne. But as the city has only 200,000 inhabitants its opera is unimportant (13 performances in the whole season 2005-2006). The programme is a hybrid one: some art songs by Barber and Copland surrounded by popular songs by Gershwin, three hits of West Side Story, successes of Richard Rogers and four Negro spirituals.

The programme starts rather badly. Since Leontyne Price, as long ago as 1967 with her “Right as the Rain” album, decided that scooping and gliding was the way to perform some of these popular songs, most of her successors took the same road. Farrell, Te Kanawa, Hendricks and recently Fleming followed her lead, thereby disillusioning jazz-lovers for whom they remained opera-singers and opera-lovers who detested their abuse of their voices. Fernandez clearly thinks that “I’ve got a crush on you” and “Summertime” (a real opera aria after all) ought to be crooned. By the third track “Love walked in” she all at once remembers she is an opera singer after all and to my relief starts singing straight on.

Neither her Barber or her Copland songs make a deep impression and probably she didn’t want to bore her public too much with it. So, most of these songs last less than three minutes, while her popular numbers easily go over five. With West Side Story one sits up and pays more attention. After all those abusive Aidas she still has a really fine girlish sound somewhat reminiscent of Kathy Battle, though a little bit less pure. The same fresh sound serves her well in South Pacific and The Sound of Music and there is nothing wrong with the enthusiasm she brings to her four spirituals. It is only when she goes above the stave that one hears that the voice has suffered and is not young anymore. Every top note above A is shrill and not pleasant to hear. Pianist Bruno Fontaine is allowed some leeway to improvise a bit now and then but he clearly knows how to support the former “Diva”.

Jan Neckers

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