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Véronique Gens’ quiet lightness of being (Wigmore Hall, 8 May 2017)

The see a French singer at least once a month programme has been going on since October. It’s true sometimes (February) it was quite a stretch but in my defense I only saw one show (shudder! gasp!) that month – and sometimes (April) the French singer was spotted more than once a month whereas in December I was in France and saw a bunch of them in one go. Vive la brioche!

On Monday I went to see Gens with 4 hours of broken sleep (thanks for nothing, kitties) at the ungodly hour of 1pm (part of BBC3’s Lunchtime Concert and you can hear it too). I didn’t droop, mostly because Mme Gens, in spite of her tall frame, has a voice light as a feather and it lifts you up.

I first heard her in La clemenza di Tito from Brussels (the one I call the reality TV Tito) where she towered over Boni’s Sesto. She managed to stick in my memory due to her unusual skill at making herself appear smaller (as if taking refuge within herself) when Vitellia realises things are going down the drain (act I finale). That skill was apparent here as well, though in a slightly different manner.

Véronique Gens soprano
Susan Manoff piano

Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947)
Néère (from Études latines)
Trois jours de vendange

Henri Duparc (1848-1933)
Chanson triste
Romance de Mignon

Ernest Chausson (1855-1899)
Le charme Op. 2 No. 2
Les papillons Op. 2 No. 3
Hébé Op. 2 No. 6

Reynaldo Hahn
Quand je fus pris au pavillon (from Rondels)
Le rossignol des lilas
A Chloris

Ernest Chausson
La chanson bien douce Op. 34 No. 1
Le temps des lilas

Reynaldo Hahn
Lydé | Tyndaris | Pholoé | Phyllis (from Études latines)
Le printemps

In nice contrast to Mattila, who joked with the crowd and kissed her accompanist on both cheeks after each section, Gens’ stage presence makes me imagine her all by herself, reading a book in a quiet coffee shop. In between songs she’s perfectly self effacing and even looks a bit uncomfortable with having a roomful of people watch her. When the songs start she gets animated.

Which brings to mind the oddness of performing. You’re there in front of people, who are all busy gauging your every move (well, the ones who don’t have their eyes glued to the programme). Pretty odd situation for a private person, which she seems to be.

If you enjoy singers who have a feel for and a deft command of piano and pianissimo, Gens is for you. I’m not sure how she sounded at the back of the room because, unusually, I had a seat at the front of the hall, but she employed some of the most delicate turns of phrase I have heard so far.

The repertoire was of the airiest kind and gave Manoff the opportunity to spin an impishly playful web beneath Gens’ feather-light sound. Their communication was clear and – for me – surprinsingly balanced: Manoff leading with more than a tinge of humour and Gens flawlessly picking up the sound and transforming it into diaphanous droplets. She can hit forte when needed and luckily there is no ping to her voice but the most interesting moments are those disarmingly soft touches, when the ends of phrases are left floating.

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The miraculously uplifting world of Patricia Petibon (Wigmore Hall, 18 March 2017)

If you ever got a chuckle reading this blog I urge you to drop whatever you’re doing and book a ticket to a Petibon recital. There’s nothing quite like it. You might come out of it and find the world brutal and monochrome but you will also have something surprisingly sturdy to hang on to when things do indeed get ugly.

I normally put up the setlist1 after the first couple of paragraphs but this time I can say what she sang was secondary. Not that I didn’t like the programme – on the contrary, I liked everything, because this was a Petibon takes over your senses kind of recital. Yes, everything, props (lots of them) and dresses included (her dress style is superb). This is a recital about which I would not change a thing – also because I don’t think my creativity is extensive enough for that task 😉

You should know that I’ve long harboured the opinion that she is the most beautiful woman in opera the world. It’s not about some fantastically perfect features (delicate bones + a large mouth can be hard to pull off), it’s the way everything is lit from within, and of course, the mischievous smile.

Part of the reason I insisted on booking a ticket to the recital was because I wanted to verify via those unsuspecting senses that there are indeed women who look like that in the 21st century. To me she doesn’t look like someone who uses Facebook and Uber (though burping and taking a poo are well within the realm of possibility). She looks like The Lady of the Lake or the French version of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Now that I have seen her rock a deep green cape I am convinced she should star as the seductive queen in the opera version of Guingamor (my secret opera project 😉 though perhaps it should only be a lyrical scene, because part II is roughly similar to Alcina).

You may think enough with this puppy eyed worshipfest of her looks, tell us about the singing, but what someone who hasn’t seen her live may need to know is that her body is integral to her singing. Since I’m still in the realm of web art, her stage persona reminds me of this classic gif:

  • it moves graciously (she never stops), it’s happy and zany and nobody can quite say what it is (it’s supposed to be a unicorn llama (of course) but to me it looks like the most cheerful progeny of a dinosaur and a giraffe). Also, it’s green.

This recital is the perfect example of what I was saying earlier about how European opera singers do it vs the American ones. Does Petibon have a good tecknique? Yes, she does, but we learn that within the space of the first few songs, after which she – nonverbally – said now that we’ve established that, let’s have some fun.

She also has a sizeable voice for her gossamer floated notes2 to project all the way to the back without ever dissipating en route, even when she sings piano (usually). This ability to float is my favourite technical trick of hers, also because it fits her onstage persona so well. When you see her so delicate and pink you do expect her to sing like that. But of course she doesn’t just do the angelic thing – if it is indeed angelic. I would say she’s far too sophisticated for that. It’s medieval lore rather (mists and distant battles) than Disney in spirit.

buddy looks suspiciously like my old boss…

Not that her persona cannot incorporate Disney 😀 and how! – irreverent Disney. We were treated to a complete scene of Snow White choking on the apple and then making out with her Prince garden gnome. For Busy Line she unwrapped a (very long) phone cord/washing line and proceeded to hang some clothes on it and had the audience help hold it.

I think what holds everything together is her palpable sense of line. It’s the fine art kind – if you’ve ever spent some time drawing you’ll immediately feel it. Some singers sing like instrumentalists and some singers paint with words. She draws with sound3, sometimes she even sculpts the music, with sharp curves and contrasts of weight and tint. It’s more 3D/physical than usual from a singer. Yet it’s almost always very soft and light, like an ink drawing or a cottonwool sculpture – at least in this programme. There were certain chord progressions and moods (the Iberian medieval and the kitsch parody) that reoccurred through the night, so one can imagine they are things she feels close to, at least at the moment.

She encored with a song (I didn’t know and she’s soft spoken) from the perspective of someone getting their life energy from a tree. I thought to myself how else could you finish whilst wearing a green corset? Then she thanked us for being alive with her tonight which promptly made me cry, though I’m not sure quite why other than it just fit the whole evening so well.

Points to Susan Manoff (piano) for being the buffer to that unique persona, she really held her own both musically (softness and contrast and general liveliness) and in personality (the sensible one).

Go see her/them, the world will appear a better place afterwards.


  1.  Samuel Barber (1910-1981) Sure on this Shining Night Op. 13 No. 3 | Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Greensleeves | Nicolas Bacri (b.1961) “Melodías de la melancolía Op. 119b” A la mar | Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) “7 canciones populares españolas” El paño moruno | Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) Canción del grumete | Fernando J Obradors (1897-1945) “El vito” Chiquitita la novia | Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) Nesta Rua | Frank Bridge (1879-1941)  Winter Pastoral H168 | Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) “Banalités” Sanglots | Henri Collet (1885-1951)  Seguidilla Op. 75 No. 2 | Murray Semos/Frank Stanton Busy Line | Francisco Paulo Mignone (1897-1986) Dona Janaina Interval Henri Collet “Los Amantes de Galicia” Camiña don Sancho | Enrique Granados (1867-1916) “12 Tonadillas en un estilo antiguo” El mirar de la maja | Joaquin Turina (1882-1949) “Poema en forma de canciones Op. 19” Cantares | Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000) La rosa y el sauce |  Agustín Lara (1897-1970)  Granada | Frank Churchill (1901-1942) Someday my prince will come (arr. Didier Lockwood) | Francis Poulenc Novelette sur un thème de Manuel de Falla | Norbert Glanzberg (1910-2001) Padam Padam (arr. Dimitri Naïditch) 
  2. Is this a French thing? Piau does her version of it as well. It’s gorgeous. 
  3. I think she has a fine art background? Maybe that’s where this comes from.