Les Contraltos is the latest in a series of compilations from Naïve Records, including Les Sopranos and Les Contre-ténors. It is a showcase of the very best of the contralto voice, with five world class contraltos performing a varied repertoire from Vivaldi to Schumann.
With six offerings from the French-Canadian contralto, Les Contraltos is dominated by the theatrical and sensual voice Marie-Nicole Lemieux. A consummate vocal actress, Lemieux is as convincing at portraying the innocence and dreamlike reverie of Thomas’ “Connais Tu Le Pays?” as she is the sultry flirtatiousness of Bizet’s “L'amour Est Un Oiseau Rebelle”.
Lemieux’s comprehensive textual understanding of Schumann’s Der Nussbaum and In Der Fremde, coupled with her superlative talent for storytelling, breathe new life into these beautiful Lieder. But it is in the realm of the French Art-Song that Lemieux excels beyond all else. She weaves an enchanting spell through Hahn’s “L'heure Exquise”, while her intimate “À Chloris” is for me the most beautiful piece on the compilation.
From the very first phrase of Vivaldi’s “Domine Deus Agnus Dei”, Sara Mingardo’s otherworldly voice captivates and scintillates. Her pure, dark tone adds a melancholic, repentant quality to Vivaldi’s sacred music, yet she is able to lighten her voice with surprising ease in the lively “Quae Moerebat Et Dolebat” from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. The Venetian contralto’s most intense performance is of Carissimi’s Cantata “Deh, Memoria, E Che Più Chiedi”, in which she draws every element of drama and passion from the work. The cantata is quite low lying, reaching F3 at points, allowing Mingardo to display her luscious lower register.
Nathalie Stutzmann employs a haunting, pure-tone delivery in the “Agnus Dei” from Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Her masterful use of dynamics, and unwavering pitch, bring out the tension in the aria. The phrasing and breath control, combined with her tasteful and understated delivery, make Stutzmann’s “Ave Maria” truly memorable. Mention here must also be made of Aurelie Saraf’s exquisite harp playing.
Naïve’s output of operas by Vivaldi are represented here by Delphine Galou and Sonia Prina. “Ti Sento, Sì, Ti Sento” from Teuzzone sees Galou dancing lightly through Vivaldi’s multiple suspensions. There is also a little passage of music in the minor key which comes straight from Cum Dederit. Her “Lo Sembro Appunto Quell’augelletto” from the 1714 version of Orlando is both upbeat and urgent, driving forward with a wonderful foot-tapping beat.
The fireworks of the CD are intrusted to the capable hands of Italian contralto Sonia Prina, who coruscates through the coloratura of the low-lying “Come L'onda” from Ottone in Villa with unnerving accuracy and ease. Her da capo ornamentation is fierce and full of bravura, electric and exciting. It is a shame there wasn’t more from Prina on the record.
All in all it is a fascinating exploration of the contralto voice, bringing hidden gems to the fore, while showcasing this rare voice type at its best. Les Contraltos should be on the playlist of any contralto enthusiast.