This was a week ago now, but it would be terribly cruel of me to neglect the last low-voiced lady – in this case a contralto – of my very mezzocentric Paris sojourn. Marie-Nicole was also the only singer I saw in recital who eschewed the eighteenth century (in whose music she also excels) entirely and instead gave us a fascinating and delectable programme of late nineteenth century songs, almost all of which were unfamiliar to me.
It was a night of serious singing but began on a hilarious note. The concert was supposed to begin at 8pm. At 8.02, we saw a member of the theatre staff running backstage at high speed and wondered if something had gone wrong. A few minutes later, Christophe Ghristi introduced the concert, offering his apologies for the slightly late start and adding: "Perhaps Marie-Nicole will explain this to you when she comes out."
She did. She had forgotten her shoes. So she did of necessity what Sandie Shaw did by choice, and sang in bare feet. Concert dress in many ways is more convenient for men than women – everybody looks handsome in a tux but frocks are much more complicated – but in this case I'm sure the floor length dress (gorgeous, incidentally) was a welcome advantage.
When she and we had all stopped giggling, then it was down to business: a generous selection of songs by Alma Mahler, Chausson's Chanson perpetuelle, Elgar's Sea Pictures and music by Guillaume Lekeu. The last of these was an entirely new name to me. Born in Belgium and educated in Paris, he was only twenty-four years old when he died of typhoid fever, leaving behind a variety of vocal, orchestral and chamber works. We first heard his langorous, haunting Molto adagio from Quatuor Psophos, and then three of his songs – "Sur une tombe", "Ronde" and "Nocturne" – all indicative of an intriguing, individual voice. Who knows what he might have achieved had he not died so very young.
I've heard Marie-Nicole live only once before, in the Verdi Requiem in Zürich two years ago, but I cannot get enough of her on disc: her latest album, of Mozart, Gluck, Haydn and Graun, is not to be missed. Hearing her up close and personal like this, though, in a small amphitheatre with only piano (the outstanding Daniel Blumenthal) and/or string quartet, was a much more immersive experience, and thoroughly gratifying: her voice had even more colour, more depth, more joyous expansiveness.
She's a genuinely generous singer, throwing herself with gusto into these throbbing Late Romantic emotions and handling even melodrama with sincerity. From the muted moments to the explosive, piano-pounding ones, she was magnificently at one with all of this repertoire, and while she had a music stand in front of her for most of the evening, it became increasingly clear that she hardly needed it.
Lekeu's songs were the revelation of the night, and a fitting way to finish it, but Elgar's Sea Pictures, which preceded them, were, at least for me, the high point. I adore these songs. "Sabbath Morning At Sea" has been imprinted upon my brain since my early days of opera nuttery, thanks to Kate Spence's performance at the Lexus Song Quest finals, and I soon learnt the others from the incomparable Dame Janet. Marie-Nicole's gutsy, gorgeous performances were the first time I've heard these songs live, and while I did miss the orchestra at times, such stirring singing was ample compensation. Her "Sabbath Morning" glowed just as it ought, but to my surprise it was "Where Corals Lie" which brought tears to my eyes.
She'd had the audience at her shoe-free feet from the beginning, whether in solemn singing mode or joking about the lack of vodka in her bottle of water, and it was no surprise that we determined to extract as many encores from her as possible. First it was Hahn's "L'heure exquise" (sigh), then Duparc's "L'invitation au voyage" and finally a repeat of Lekeu's "Nocturne": "so rarely heard," she said, "that it's worth singing twice". As the strings started up, she suddenly rushed to grab her music – but just seconds later she set it on the piano and, sure enough, sang flawlessly and vividly from memory, setting the seal with characteristic panache on a deeply impressive recital.