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If anyone may lay claim to the title of prima donna assoluta of the late 20th century, it is surely Jessye Norman. She is one of the great communicators. Whether in the intimate setting of the Wigmore Hall in London, or the huge space of the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, she can give each listener the sense that her song is directed straight at them. Jessye Norman was born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1945. She studied at Howard University, the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Michigan. In 1968 she won the Munich International Music Competition, and this led to an invitation to sing in Berlin at the Deutsche Oper, where she made her debut as Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhäuser. After that her career blossomed and she went on to conquer the world’s greatest opera houses including La Scala in Milan and the Metropolitan in New York. One of her greatest triumphs in New York was in 1982, in Robert Wilson's Great Day in the Morning, and in 1989 she was invited to sing the Marseillaise for the 14 July celebrations in the Place de la Concorde.
The music on these CDs presents a cross-section of Jessye Norman's repertory, in German and French opera, in Lieder and mélodie, in oratorio and even operetta. Since Wagner's Tannhäuser provided Jessye Norman with her first stage role, it is appropriate to begin with two arias from that opera. Senta's ballad from Der fliegende Holländer tells the story of the Flying Dutchman, who is condemned to sail the seas for eternity unless he can find a woman who will remain faithful unto death. The Wesendonck- Lieder were composed by Wagner in 1857–8 as a tribute to Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of his friend Otto; particularly in 'Im Treibhaus' and 'Träume', they look forward to Tristan und Isolde. The three Schubert songs, and the solo from Brahms's German Requiem, bring the German part of the programme to a rapturous conclusion.
From Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann Jessye Norman sings the role of Giulietta, a Venetian courtesan, who ruins the hero, Hoffmann, by urging him to take part in a duel, and then in a symbolic gesture demands from him the ultimate sacrifice – the gift of his reflection. 'The face that launched a thousand ships' – Helen of Troy in La Belle Hélène – is another kind of temptress, and shows the full extent of Norman's comic gifts. In the song cycles by Ravel and Poulenc we glimpse a different side of the artist. La Fraîcheur et le feu was composed in 1950 for the baritone Pierre Bernac, Poulenc's greatest interpreter; in the 1960s, Bernac gave many master-classes covering the whole world of French song, and Jessye Norman was one of his students. The poems set are entitled Vue donne vie (‘Sight gives life'), but Poulenc asked the author, Paul Eluard, to give him a new title for the song-cycle. 'Unis la fraîcheur et le feu' is the opening line of the fifth song: 'Unite the coolness and the fire'. That is exactly what Jessye Norman has always done, and – in Bernac's words – she has done it with 'profound humanity'.
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