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 Recording of the Week  Elīna Garanča sings dramatic arias for mezzo-soprano

There’s always a special thrill in hearing a voice you’ve loved for a long time venturing into new territory at exactly the right point in its development: Anna Netrebko’s recent Verismo disc on Deutsche Grammophon was one such case in point this autumn, and now it’s the turn of Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča, who’s frequently appeared opposite Netrebko in bel canto repertoire both on stage and on disc and now announces her imminent shift into more dramatic waters with a thrillingly sung portfolio of powerhouse French, Russian and Italian heroines and anti-heroines including Berlioz’s Didon, Saint-Saens’s Dalila, Verdi’s Eboli and Mussorgsky’s Marina.

Elīna Garanča
Elīna Garanča

Indeed, Garanča (who’s previously said in interviews that she has no desire to move into dramatic soprano territory as other mezzos have done at this stage in their careers) allows herself a brief excursion in Netrebko’s own new repertoire here by including Adriana Lecouvreur’s great hymn to the Muse, ‘Io son l’umille ancella’, and offering a very different perspective on the diva to her former colleague – encompassing the higher tessitura with ease, Garanča’s Adriana is very much a high-minded Classical grande dame, in contrast to the larger-than-life method-actress we encounter on Netrebko’s new album.

But it’s as Adriana’s love-rival, the scheming Principessa di Bouillon, that she made the entire office sit up and take notice: anyone who’s previously found Garanča’s habitual poise a little too chilly in dramatic repertoire might revise their opinion after hearing her swing between erotic anticipation, lacerating masochism and anxiety here as she waits for an assignation with a lover whom she’s already aware has long since moved onto pastures new.

And what a chest-voice! Though the top end’s as gleaming and secure as ever, these days Garanča’s mezzo really comes into its own in the lower-middle register, and its impact here is so powerful that one colleague actually thought it must be a trick of the microphone – I’m fairly certain it’s not! She’s also compelling in the opening track, Santuzza’s ‘Voi lo sapete’ from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (a role she’ll take on for the first time this month in Paris): having just emerged from a run as Mamma Lucia in ‘Cav’ myself, I’ve spent the past few weeks listening to Santuzza’s narration of her seduction and abandonment by Turiddu at close quarters, many times over, so it says something that Garanča made me feel like I was hearing her tale of woe for the very first time!

In the accompanying notes, Garanča reveals that she often struggles with the comparatively sterile atmosphere of the recording-studio: you’d never guess. Each of these complex and diverse women spring to life fully formed and meticulously differentiated, and you never get the sense that she’s using every item in her new technical tool-box for its own sake: listen, for instance, to the restrained resignation of her Didon from Les Troyens, which has to be the most dignified and quietly heartbreaking account of the scene on disc since Janet Baker’s. (Interestingly, Garanča’s very personal and insightful booklet-essay also touches on several themes that came up in my discussion with Joyce DiDonato about her own new disc In War and Peace, which you can watch/read below: both singers focus on the idea of ‘strong women in moments of weakness’, and what Garanča describes as the impulse to search ‘for a place which is quiet and peaceful’ in times of emotional turmoil – nestled amongst Garanča's own compelling gallery of ‘drama queens’, Mignon’s bitter-sweet paean to homesickness, ‘Connais-tu le pays?’ provides exactly that).

Before I go, I must also give a quick heads-up to a delightful debut disc from a singer who’s making quite an impact in France in Garanča’s ‘old’ repertoire of lighter lyric ‘trouser’ roles: ‘Oh Boy!’ (out now on Erato) introduces the elegant French mezzo Marianne Crebassa via a parade of young male characters from operas by Mozart and nineteenth-century French composers, and reveals a crisp, pleasingly astringent voice that puts me in mind of Frederica von Stade. Definitely one to watch!

Elīna Garanča: Revive

Elīna Garanča (mezzo), Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, Roberto Abbado

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

Oh, Boy!: Mozart & French Opera Arias

Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Marc Minkowski

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