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 Recording of the Week  An Operatic Trip to Paris with Sonya Yoncheva

The first part of 2015 has brought numerous wonderful discs of French vocal repertoire - I’m still revelling in Bryan Hymel’s Héroïque, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, and some of you may have seen the recent interview we ran with Sir Mark Elder about Donizetti’s Les Martyrs, which is due out in a fortnight – but I hope you’ll indulge me if I tell you a little about one more, a Paris-themed operatic recital from a singer who looks set to become one of the brightest stars in the firmament and has already made waves at the Metropolitan Opera and Covent Garden over the last season or two.

Sonya Yoncheva
Sonya Yoncheva

Rather like Mr Hymel, in fact, the Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva has been thrust into the spotlight by a series of high-profile step-ins for starry colleagues (she made her unscheduled but sensational Met debut as Gilda in lieu of Polish diva Aleksandra Kurzak, and has also substituted for Kristine Opolais and Angela Gheorghiu), and she too is endowed with one of those voices that bring together qualities not commonly found in one singer – hers is a big lyric soprano with dusky, almost mezzo-ish colours lower down, coupled with thrilling agility and a soaring extreme upper register (check out the high Ds in the final scene from Thaïs here, one of the highlights of the whole disc for me). She’s been much celebrated already in roles like Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, and both Mimì and Musetta in La bohème, but I’ll wager she’ll be doing a roaring trade in hard-to-cast Verdi heroines like Elena (I vespri Siciliani), Elvira (Ernani) and Leonora (Il trovatore) in the not-too-distant future.

Perhaps a little surprisingly, Yoncheva began her career singing early opera (I first came across her as an unusually vocally voluptuous Poppea on Emmanuelle Haïm’s DVD of Monteverdi’s L'incoronazione di Poppea, and in 2007 she was a member of William Christie’s prestigious Le Jardin de Voix, a training programme for young singers with special potential in baroque music); though the sheer amplitude her voice has acquired since then has taken her in quite a different direction in terms of repertoire, it’s possible to see the hallmarks of her early training in the way she points certain phrases, or shapes the dramatic recitative sections in the extracts from Gounod’s Sappho and Massenet’s Le Cid. She’s also retained a lovely clarity and focus in her sound, even in the heaviest repertoire on the disc (nothing sounds cloudy or pushed), and the crystal-clear coloratura runs in Violetta’s ‘Sempre Libera’ and the charmant waltz-song praising Paris from Lecocq’s Les Cent Vierges which closes the disc bear witness to her time in baroque boot-camp!

It helps that the programme itself is gorgeous, not to mention conceptually interesting: most of the operas represented here are set in, or have connections with, nineteenth-century Paris (which, as Mark Elder was saying in relation to Les Martyrs, was an incredibly fertile and cosmopolitan climate from an operatic point of view), taking in three of Massenet’s soprano heroines, two of Puccini’s (Mimì and Anna, from the early Le Villi), plus some Gounod, Verdi and Offenbach, and two frothier items in the form of Messager’s ‘Madam Butterfly’, Madame Chrysanthème, and the Lecocq I mentioned earlier. Everything sounds beautiful, but nothing sounds bland: all of these complex heroines are beautifully differentiated and delineated, yet the characterisation is never mannered or fussy. The delirious, radiant Thaïs and vital, defiant Violetta have probably received most play-time on my iPod - but to be honest I was hooked from the opening track, Massenet’s Salomé singing of her love for John the Baptist.

Paris, mon amour

Sonya Yoncheva (soprano), Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, Frederic Chaslin

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC