Colorature: a CD from Marie-Eve Munger, soprano

My favourite lines in the film The Blues Brothers? The moment when The Brothers arrive at their gig, pretending to be “The Goodtime Boys”, and enquire what sort of music this establishment usually offers.

“oh we got both kinds: country AND western”.

Some people come to music –and this is true whether we’re speaking of country OR western, pop OR jazz, classical OR opera,… or you name it—seeking something new, while others want something safe & familiar. Those words are close to meaningless, given that one man’s safe is another man’s walk on the wild-side. I caution you, reader. When I review something I may be so busy seeking the newness and originality that I fail to properly apprise you of what to expect.

Marie-Eve Munger’s CD Colorature is highly original, or at least that’s how I experienced it. It may not come across that way if one simply wants to hear and enjoy music. And it really does allow for enjoyment, a stunning series of performances from a beautiful voice.  I am afraid however of using that adjective “original” because it may give the wrong impression.  Have no fear whether you think of yourself as open-minded or conservative.

click for ATMA’s website including purchase info

I found myself pondering the word in the title. “Colorature” is the French version of coloratura, a word that is both an adjective and a noun.  A singer who sings certain roles will be known as a “coloratura”, as are the key passages where she earns her money.  Coloratura can be the music and be the singer, or the role or the brief passages in the role  (and in the case of say the Queen of the Night, those 5-10 minutes are the most memorable of the night, the part everyone recalls).  These decorative features in the music are normally wordless. If you’ve never experienced anything like that in opera I’d point to scat in jazz as something similar, where the voice’s expressive power is turned loose in an abstract realm of pure music without reference to the usual need for text in song.

Those of us who teach or who review performances often find a stratified world where functions and styles are separated from one another. Opera is separate from concert singing is separate from jazz or music-hall singing, and separate again from film. Yet in practice singers can be (must be?) all of these at once, especially as they seek careers. The distinctions are largely b.s. if you’ll pardon my choice of words. Sometimes the classifications have more to do with someone seeking to file a review in the right part of a publication or to find the right department in a store than with anything about human vocal anatomy. Versatility is in fact far more natural than specialization.

I mention this because of the CD, where one encounters some intriguing remnants from a more natural world, before things became hyper-specialized. Munger’s rep on the CD is unexpected precisely because it applies the extreme vocal virtuosity one usually finds in opera arias in different types of music.  I wonder, were these pieces ever really popular? And i use that P word in the specialized way we use in speaking of classical rep, where we look at a symphony or opera company staying afloat with government subsidies as “successful”.  These charmers may be obscure compared to familiar coloratura arias but not based on merit.

Some of the singing on the CD is not coloratura. I suppose it’s funny to be phrasing it in the negative, but in a typical opera role, the coloratura is used sparingly, perhaps a little something to jazz up the ends of arias, rather than something continuous, whereas the vocalises for example push a voice.  I wonder what a concert program like this CD would be like for the singer: as in, how difficult.  But I suppose that highlights the many other ways a voice can be used as a colour instrument without necessarily being trapped in the more conventional functions of the voice, especially the verbal/semantic ones.  It’s a bit of a paradox (or an irony if you prefer) that great demands can sometimes seem to overwhelm one, particularly if the performer cannot turn the challenge into display, the moment on the trapeze into an impressive escape from danger. If death is not defied in those high wire moments, the artist is ill-advised to venture into the air, not to tease those of us craning our necks while worrying about the fair maiden’s survival. But this is the happiest sort of performance, one brilliantly assembled to make you rethink what you know about what the voice can do.

She flies through the air with the greatest of ease.

The most typically coloratura moments are in Vocalise-Études by Fauré and Ravel and in Glière’s Concerto pour coloratura, even as the singer is pushed well beyond what we’re accustomed to hearing in well-worn pieces of opera. One of the great challenges with unfamiliar repertoire is the requirement of the artist to make the material their own, to seize the unknown music and make it sing, make it more than just notes. Munger brings a cabaret singer’s charisma, making an intimate connection throughout, and even a bit of swagger. The flamboyance is merely a reflection of quirky material that calls for confidence, masterful technique and precise vocalism. But Munger is at that level beyond, where she’s playing with us, riding the wit of Debussy or the surreal silliness of Milhaud. Her voice is completely at her service and ours, eager and ready.

I am reminded of something I read awhile ago, about opera in an era before pornography, when the only sexual display sanctioned for public theatre was in the vocalism of the diva showing off her brilliant control, her fabulous top (possibly in more senses than one). There’s more than a little ecstasy encoded in coloratura, more than a little pleasure to be had listening to such music. Munger has assembled a CD of startling beauty, requiring personality, charm & taste: and more than met the challenge for each composition. As the review with which I (probably) end 2014, it’s a most impressive assembly of music from the intellectual side, yet a most stirring appeal to the visceral.

Beautiful from beginning to end.

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