On a recital by Marianne Crebassa and Alphonse Cemin at La Scala.
In 2012, I commented on a performance at the Salzburg Festival—a performance of Handel’s opera Tamerlano, in concert. I wrote, “There was a mezzo-soprano, previously unknown to me: Marianne Crebassa, a Frenchwoman. She’s known to me now.” Yes. She was strikingly good.
In 2017, again writing from Salzburg, I said, “Marianne Crebassa is a French mezzo-soprano, well-known in Europe, not well-known in the United States. Before long, she will be known everywhere.” Is she? Whatever the case, she is one of the best singers—in both song and opera—now before the public.
And she has given a recital at La Scala, no less. You can see it here. She sang this recital on June 6, with a fellow Frenchman, Alphonse Cemin, at the piano.
It is a great honor to sing a recital at La Scala, at least as I see it. I remember when Marilyn Horne sang one, with her longtime accompanist Martin Katz. This was almost exactly forty years ago—on June 2, 1981. It was a very big deal. And you can watch it here.
Marianne Crebassa was born in 1986, growing up on the Riviera, in the town of Agde. Monsieur Cemin, too, was born in 1986, studying in Paris with, among others, Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
At La Scala, the two of them performed a program of French and Spanish music—and Spanishized French music, if you know what I mean. (Ravel’s “Chanson espagnole”; selections from Carmen.) The evening began with six songs—Seis canciones castellanas—of Jesús Guridi (1886–1961). Along the way, you had some Debussy, some Falla, etc.
Rather than review the recital, song by song, perhaps I could give you some generalities. What makes Crebassa good, even great? I will count the ways.
Voice. A voice that is lush, warm, sensuous—I’m tempted to say “Mediterranean.” Frequently, I described Frederica von Stade’s voice as “wet,” even “dripping.” Crebassa has that same quality, among others. Then there is the technique—a very secure technique, capable of whatever a composer wants to throw at her. Her intonation is spot-on. This is a great gift to a listener, whether he knows it or not. (He may notice it when it’s absent.)
Crowning everything is musical intelligence, or style, if you like. Crebassa seems a born musician, a musician who sings.
In Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, she is emotional, passionate—and yet there is the right Gallic cool, or Debussyan cool. A hot-cool, if I may. And when she sings “L’île inconnue”—the last song in Berlioz’s cycle Les nuits d’été—you want to jump out of your seat, sailing off to parts unknown. Such is the ecstasy.
About the Spanish songs, what would “Vickie D.” (Victoria de los Angeles) or “Montsi” (Montserrat Caballé) say? I think they would say, “Very Spanish, muy español.”
One more thing: I sometimes tell a story about Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and it applies to Crebassa. In addition to being a great singer, Schwarzkopf was dubbed “the most glamorous woman in Europe.” One afternoon, a regular concertgoer took a friend—a neophyte—to a concert. Schwarzkopf was the featured singer. When the soprano took the stage, the neophyte gasped to his friend, “And she sings, too?”
Gerald Moore once joked that his mother was the only person who read reviews from the bottom up. (Moore was a distinguished accompanist, as you recall.) I don’t mean to leave Alphonse Cemin to the end, but better late than never. Honestly, he is as musical as his mezzo, which is saying something—saying a lot.
Yes, it is an honor to give a recital at La Scala. But this is a recital that honors the house, too.
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