With Bastille Day on Saturday, French music is pretty unavoidable—not that we’re complaining (unless we’re talking that C-level of French bubblegum pop).
Opera may have been invented in Italy, and to some extent the Italians still have a considerable corner of the market, but they have some stiff competition in their brothers to the northeast. Emotion? Check. Passion? Check. Infectious melodies? Check, check and check.
But rather than bring you a list of, say, the Top Ten French Operas (which admittedly could get a little predictable with the Manons and the Carmens that rightfully earn top laurels), we decided to go for, shall we say, a French twist. Which is why we’re bringing you our ten picks for the greatest French aria and chanson recordings. While perhaps nothing this July 14 can top the gloriousness that is Jessye Norman singing the French national anthem on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution while wearing a billowing tri-color cape designed by Azzedine Alaia, these albums from past and present come pretty darn close. Read on for our rankings and let us know in the comments below: What will you be listening to this Bastille Day?
10. Anne Sofie von Otter: Ombre de Mon Amant (2010)
Love it or loathe it, French Baroque opera exists. And it provides a foundation for the culture’s grand operas and bombastic operettas to come. And it took a maestro from Buffalo to bring out many of its nuances and make the musical form palatable to contemporary listeners. (Let’s call it even for the “freedom fries” debacle, France.) Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter seems like a left-field choice to pair with William Christie on scenes from Rameau, Charpentier and Lambert, especially given her later-year devotion to 20th-century rep. And though it’s unthinkable to compare her Medée to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s (also recorded under Christie) there are hints of von Otter’s Handelian and Monteverdian roots here.
9. Mireille Delunsch, Vincent Le Texier & François Kerdoncuff: Duparc: The Complete Songs (2000)
A roundup of French aria recordings without some dedicated to chansons would be as unthinkable as asking for fat-free milk in a Left Bank café. And if you have made it this far in your life without hearing Duparc’s art song “Phidylé,” stop reading this instant, go here, and listen. Perhaps the epitome of French chanson, it contains—along with the vast majority of Duparc’s works—a voluptuous languor tempered with hot-and-heavy crescendos and glistening imagery. There are a myriad of masterful recordings of this tune, but this compendium of Duparc’s chansons, performed by a trifecta of French singers, is a must for any collection.
8. Montserrat Caballé: French Opera Arias (2006)
This striking album's CD release in 2006 was long overdue, showcasing the Spanish soprano in her prime. While noted more for her bel canto singing (and for good reason), this tour through the familiar but favorite territory of Faust’s “Jewel Song,” Juliette’s coloratura spectacular and “O mon miroir fidèle” out of Massenet’s Thaïs shows another side of the soprano. "O beau pays de la Touraine” from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and the “Air de la Crau” from Gounod’s Mireille are as delicious and indulgent as a two-hour lunch with wine pairings on a Tuesday at Taillevent.
7. Stéphane Degout: Mélodies (2011)
While I praised the collection of Duparc arias earlier on this list, I noted a heady quality to it, the kind that settles over a work like a humid summer haze. The other side to French art song is heard here in Degout’s rendering of chansons by Debussy, Duparc, Saint-Saëns, Chabrier, Hahn and Ravel. A cofounder of the advocacy organization Société Nationale de Musique Moderne, Saint-Saëns and his comrades on this album arrive with a virile, vital presence. The songs aren’t content to recline like odalisques; rather they attack with a ferocity and vibrancy that makes this Naïve album the perfect French lover for your aural faculties. This album also begs the question: Why aren’t there more all-French baritone recital discs?
6. Marie-Nicole Lemieux: Ne Me Refuse Pas (2010)
A Canadian contralto making huge waves on the scene, Marie-Nicole Lemieux may be poised to inherit Marilyn Horne’s mantle. Her voice has the blend of an expert mixologist: a little sweetness with an edge and a combination of unusual flavors. It's a cocktail from which you’d be proud to have a hangover. And it’s easy to get drunk off of her 2010 album of 19th-century arias, which dashes from works like Halévy’s Charles VI and Massenet’s Herodiade. It’s equally easy to get lost in her accounts of Werther’s “Qui M’aurait dit la place,” Carmen’s “L’amour est un oiseaux rebelle” and Samson et Dalila’s “Mon Coeur S’ouvre à ta voix.”
5. Frederica von Stade: French Opera Arias (1976)
Our friend Flicka delivers big on this release, which rings with a youthful, poetic realism that’s equal parts Truffaut and Amélie. She gives the sprightly page aria from Les Huguenots all the rococo flourishes of a royal servant on the verge of manhood, while also inflecting Cendrillon’s Act III aria with a regal romanticism straight out of, well, a fairytale. Her more womanly side comes through in the comparatively mature “D’amour l’ardente Flamme” from Berlioz’s Damnation, and she caps off the album with a wine-fueled “Ah! Quel dîner” from Offenbach’s La Périchole, an ariette that is the aperitif to one of the wildest weddings in opera.
4. Magdalena Kozena: French Arias (2003)
It’s not the familiar tunes from Mignon, Carmen or Roméo et Juliette that make this album such a winner—or so highly placed on this list (though they are all splendid in and of themselves). Kozena’s deeper cuts into relatively unknown works like Auber’s Le Domino Noir, Gounod’s Cinq Mars and Boieldieu’s La Dame Blanche paired against trademark arias give the rarities a chance to glimmer in context—and of their own accord. And she sells each one with such expressivity that you needn’t understand a word of the French language to get the meanings in each aria, from the languid “Nuit resplendissante” to the cloying “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle.”
3. Roberto Alagna: Berlioz Arias (2006)
Growing up in the suburbs of Paris is a fact often secondary to his Italian name and lineage, but Alagna is as adept at the full-throated bel canto and verismo roles of Verdi and Puccini as he is at the expressive, sensitive works of Massenet and Bizet. He has a collection of arias by his compatriots (worth the price of admission alone is his rendition of “Ô souverain!” from Massenet’s Le Cid). However, it’s Alagna’s album devoted entirely to Romantic composer Hector Berlioz that’s a true knockout. He’s all id in selections from Les Troyens, a bit more superego in extracts from La Damnation de Fast, and it’s hard not to get swept up in the no-holds-barred patriotism of Berlioz’s “La Marseillaise” arrangement.
2. Marilyn Horne: Arias from French Operas (1968)
Horne is inarguably stunning in the French repertoire as this 1968 collection makes clear. There are no rarities here, but Horne could sing a 1986 edition of a Normandy phonebook and make it ring out with chocolaty tones and a foie gras richness. Her triptych of arias from Mignon—the winsome “Connais-tu le Pays?,” the fanciful Gavotte and the heartbreaking “Elle est la, près de lui!”—are a mini-opera unto themselves with a fluid narrative and emotional arc. Charlotte’s arias from Werther are conflicted and compelling. Her takes on Carmen and Dalila? Scintillatingly seductive. Why ask for more? This LP never landed its own CD/digital release, but it does come part and parcel with Horne's economically-priced complete collection of Decca recitals.
1. Joan Sutherland: Romantic French Arias (2007 reissue)
It's hard to dethrone Joan, especially in this expansive two-disc set of Gallic airs from the era of Gounod, Offenbach, Charpentier and Massenet. Together with conductor Richard Bonynge, she brings a glittering sense of girlish magic to Louise’s “Depuis le jour” and a frothy, drunken excess to “Ah! Que j’aime les militaires!” from Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein. Thanks to Bonynge’s untiring intellectual curiosity, there are also a number of unexpected tunes here, and who better to introduce us to the worlds of Aubert’s Manon Lescaut or Massé’s Les Noces de Jeanette than Dame Joan?