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Victoria de los Angeles performs Ravel, Debussy & Duparc
21 Feb 2007

Victoria de los Angeles performs Ravel, Debussy & Duparc

Carmen was one of Victoria de los Angeles’ favorite roles and she brought to it much that we hear on this recording of French songs: a winsome voice without heavy vibrato, a close attention to musical detail, and an evident understanding of the French words that she conveys, if not with an impeccable accent, at least with a convincingly understandable pronunciation.

Victoria de los Angeles performs Ravel, Debussy & Duparc

Victoria de los Angeles, soprano, Gonzalo Soriano, piano, Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, Georges Prêtre

EMI Classics 0094634582421 (Angel); 0094634582124 (Dog and Trumpet) 0094634582155 (Digital) [CD]

$11.99  Click to buy

As a Spanish singer in a French opera set in Spain, her interpretation had an organic integrity that added authenticity to the operatic visit to her home country.

We enjoy a similar musical voyage on this EMI re-release of songs by Ravel, Debussy and Duparc. The Ravel songs provide an ethnic travelogue in Tristan Klingsor’s fantastic text to Shéhérazade and in actual ethnic songs from around the Mediterranean region in the Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques, the Chants Populaires, and the Deux Mélodies Hébraïques. The Debussy songs provide imaginary time travel to the worlds of Watteau paintings in the Fêtes Galantes and to an imaginary ancient Greece in the Chansons de Bilitis. The Debussy songs and the Ravel Chants Populaires are accompanied by Gonzalo Soriano on the piano; the rest have orchestral accompaniment.

These songs were recorded in 1963 and 1967 when the singer was in her prime vocally and we hear none of the roughness that crept in as financial concerns caused her to extend her career. Still, it has to be acknowledged that in the upper registers, her voice, while retaining a beautiful purity, does not really blossom. Thus the sound that transports some listeners does not excite everyone. To my ear, this pure tone works very well in most of this repertoire. Ravel’s ethnic songs have a directness from which a heavier vibrato would detract. Thus the Chants Populaires, infrequently recorded, are very successful. The ubiquitous Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques bring out the endearing warmth of her personality, but the orchestral accompaniment, while adding color, perhaps makes a bigger production of these songs than they should have (only two of the orchestrations are by Ravel himself). The Deux Mélodies Hébraïques are simple and, especially in the case of the Kaddisch, worshipful. A quick comparison with Cecilia Bartoli’s performance of these songs and the Chants Populaires on her 1996 Chant d’Amour disc shows Bartoli having a richer sound but less clearly understandable texts. Bartoli also sings these songs in Hebrew rather than French, and noticeably modifies her voice to sound childlike in the son’s section of the dialogue in the Chanson Hebraïque.

There is also much to like in De los Angeles’s performance of the Debussy songs. Again, the purity and containment of her vocal sound bring out the ironic detachment as well as the charm of the Fêtes Galantes set. Her performance of the Chansons de Bilitis beautifully evokes what Graham Johnson calls their “Delphic spirituality”, where the eroticism is “veiled, understated, and under-age”. Her ability to sound vulnerable while using her whole voice draws us into the heart of the young woman encountering the birth, consummation and death of erotic passion. Again, one can compare with more recent performances. Dawn Upshaw on her 2004 Voices of Light presents a more sharply defined emotional range: more intensely passionate in “La Chevelure,” while backing off the (already fairly transparent) sound to sound more childlike in places. By contrast, René Fleming on her 2001 Night Songs has a less focused sound with more pronounced legato than either of the others. There is more shimmer in the higher registers, but less personality in the interpretation. De los Angeles’s final Debussy song is the troubled “Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison”, written by the aged Debussy in horror at the devastation of World War I. Again, De los Angeles’s sincerity and pure timbre allow her to sing unaffectedly as one of the displaced children regretting the loss of “our little beds” (as well as the rest of their villages, families, and daily lives).

It is in the Ravel Shéhérazade, and the orchestrated Duparc songs that admirers of a richer sounding voice may be disappointed in this program. In the expansive “Asie”, which opens the entire disc and describes a fantasy voyage across the continent, exploring every dark nook and cranny before returning home to tell one’s friends about it, the changing colors of the travelogue are heard in the orchestra rather than in the singer’s voice. However, the two more intimate songs that follow are quite effective, particularly when one takes into account that they both deal with erotic passion that under the circumstances cannot or will not be pursued, so the singer’s contained sound works well.

There is no faulting de los Angeles’s emotion, musicality or technique in the Duparc songs that close the disc. Duparc himself might object to the performance, since he apparently was annoyed to hear a woman’s voice sing a man’s song. And of course, those who are drawn to Duparc among French composers because he is more like their real love, Wagner, than many others, will want to hear a bigger vocal sound than de los Angeles offers. Nevertheless, she does bring off the intimacy of the opening of “Phydilé” very well, and when the sonic landscape opens out in the climax, she is able to fill it effectively without pushing her voice, reminding us once again of her very successful operatic career.

It should be noted that this disc, released as part of EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century” series, has been completely remastered at Abbey Road studios. Fans of Victoria de los Angeles should know that all of these performances are also available on the multi-disc set entitled The Fabulous Victoria de los Angeles. Since I had that set already, I compared some of the tracks on my own equipment and that of my audiophile brother-in-law, and he and I both agreed that her middle voice in particular is better captured on the older discs, so I wouldn’t advise buying this disc if you have the older set, or are enough of a fan to consider acquiring it (last I checked it’s still available). The new release includes a 2006 essay by John Steane (in English and in German translation) discussing the songs and the singer, as well as texts and German and English translations of the songs.

Barbara Miller

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