This collection of French baroque arias concludes with 'Rien du tout' (Nothing at all), a kind of 12-inch novelty single by the obscure composer Grandval, offering a tongue-in-cheek parade of the rather formulaic situations and emotions typical of the French Baroque. They're presented in an exhausting sequence by soprano Patricia Petibon, as she attempts to win the attention and approval of her audience. Finally she concludes that her talents are wasted on these brutes, and she prefers to sing nothing at all.
The aria's a neat microcosm of the whole disc, and I couldn't help wishing she'd reached the conclusion a few tracks sooner. Petibon has a highly impressive technique, and her take on this repertoire is wholehearted, entering fully into the opulence and theatricality of the Bourbon court. Admirers of the voice as a beautiful display instrument will find a lot to enjoy, with many of the tracks chosen for their virtuosic qualities. But this undoubted brilliance can be a barrier to appreciating the real emotion in the music.
This is a pity, because there are some gems tucked away in corners of the disc, such as 'Viens, hymens' from Rameau's Les Indes Galantes. Petibon can be wonderfully plangent when the situation demands, with a tone that's unerringly sweet and pure. She's also right at home in the luxuriant but nuanced sensuality of 'Volez, plaisirs...', from Rameau's Les fêtes de l'Hymen et de l'Amour. The ensemble too is impeccably restrained and mutually responsive - witness the two purely instrumental interludes offered on the disc.
But just as often she indulges in a kind of hyperactive eccentricity, seizing the abundant possibilities for the grotesque, arch or supposedly humorous that this music offers. On first listening to 'Le perfide Renaud...' from Lully's Armide I was unsure whether the strange noises towards the end of the aria were French baroque yowls coming from my speakers or feline yowls seeping in from the gardens of Acton. There are plenty of other examples...hiccups, growls, moments of studied crudeness of various shapes and sizes.
If you're looking for a fully-costumed variety night out at the Parisian theatre complete with wigs and rouge, you may well enjoy this disc, because there isn't a hair out of place, and there's everything from the bucolic to the pathetic, via the comic and the Bacchic for good measure. But be warned you may end up preferring nothing at all. --Matthew Shorter
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