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GRAMOPHONE (10/2020)
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Harmonia Mundi

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Reviewer: Richard Wigmore

The figure of ‘La Folie’, announced here in an impulsive air from André Campra’s Les fêtes vénitiennes, was a perennial favourite in French Baroque ballets and masquerades. ‘Without love and folly there are no happy moments’, she proclaims in the tart gavotte that ends Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s typically enterprising recital – though the poor women of Purcell’s ‘From silent shades’ and ‘From rosy bow’rs’, driven out of their minds by love, might jabber in protestation.

Symbolising the follies and excesses of love, the alluring figure of Semele appears here in solos by Destouches and Marin Marais. South of the Alps, the hopelessly smitten swain pines for his heartless beauty in Handel’s Roman cantata Ah! crudel nel pianto mio, ending with a glimmer – only a glimmer – of hope that his constancy will be rewarded.

A natural stage animal (her calling cards include Carmen and Charlotte), d’Oustrac brings a passionate intensity to these portraits, amorous, grieving or deranged. With her wide range of colour and her care for the sound and sense of words, the French mezzo makes each character vividly distinct. She is also a risk-taker, unafraid of a harsh or whining tone where apt, yet never resorting to caricature. Some distorted vowels reveal d’Oustrac as a nonnative speaker in the Purcell mad scenes. Yet so vital is her characterisation – the shades of anguish, desolation and febrile gaiety unflinchingly caught – that you hardly notice, and certainly don’t care. Lubriciously savouring each syllable, she exudes a dangerous sexual urgency in Campra’s ‘Air de la Folie’, and embodies both Semele’s erotic longing and the poignancy of her destruction, all colour bleached from the tone.

In the Handel cantata, especially, purists might prefer a smoother, more even line. D’Oustrac can swoop and bulge in the intensity of the moment. That said, this is another compelling portrayal, with d’Oustrac eloquently exploiting the dark core within her glowing mezzo. Throughout the recital Ensemble Amarillis are ideally fiery and/or sympathetic accomplices. The plaintive oboe-voice dialogue in the final aria of the Handel epitomises the close interplay between singer and instrumentalists. On their own the players relish the anarchic pizzazz of the Keiser sinfonia that opens the disc and the spirited banter of a concerto grosso by Heinichen – a delightful discovery, this. The concept is imaginative, the repertoire (Purcell apart) hardly familiar, and the performances both probing and enlivening. Emphatically recommended.

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