The young French mezzo-soprano’s whistle-stop hour took us from Greece to Venice via Arabia and ancient Persia in a perfumed sequence of mélodies that allowed the actress within to perform with her body as well as her voice. It’s rare for this reviewer to comment on an artist’s attire, but Catherine Trottmann used her stunning red gown as a prop to help her create a role with each song, nowhere more so than in Ravel’s Asie, the languid opening number in Shéhérazade, during which she explored the contours of her robe with a listless sensuality. It was pure opera.

Karolos Zouganelis and Catherine Trottmann © Caroline Doutre
Karolos Zouganelis and Catherine Trottmann
© Caroline Doutre

Trottmann’s vocal quality is as fascinating as her stage presence. She sings from far back in the mouth with a full-bodied, semi-nasal quality that might be expected to pose problems in this repertoire but doesn’t. Throughout the recital her diction remained pure and forthright, her vocal precision faultless, and the musicality of her timbre played like a wind instrument against the deft pianism of Karolos Zouganelis. The effect was individual, unusual and bewitching.

Ravel’s Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques were sumptuously differentiated by a singer with a disconcerting mastery of her stage persona. Trottmann used profile, posture and facial expression to bring each song to life before plunging into the voluptuous exoticism of those Tristan Klingsor settings. For once, La flûte enchantée and L’indifférent were equal partners to Asie, with none of that sense of diminishing returns for which the cycle is sometimes criticised. A concern that Zouganelis was prone to overpedalling soon passed as voice and piano coalesced in rapt unity.

We don’t usually think of Gabriel Fauré as an artless composer, yet after the Ravel a pair of well-loved songs sounded almost childlike. Trottmann shrugged off the technical leaps in a charming account of Les roses d’Ispahan while Zouganelis’ piano practically twanged in Mandoline. Fauré’s mélodies suit Trottmann’s voice particularly well; we could have done with a few more from her, perhaps at the expense of the sore-thumb Rossini offerings that followed (although not until the Greek pianist had provided a ravishing interlude in the shape of Fauré’s bewitching Sixth Nocturne in D minor).

Catherine Trottmann © Caroline Doutre
Catherine Trottmann
© Caroline Doutre

Reynaldo Hahn’s evocative chanson La barcheta, one of his six settings in a Venetian dialect collectively called Venezia, is a rapt miniature with the gently rocking “little boat” of the title in the piano part and Trottmann our loving guide across the lagoon. Indeed, one might think the two artists’ affectionate partnership deserved more equal respect than André Messager provided with J’ai deux amants, the man-baiting encore (“Mon Dieu, que c’est bête, un homme!”), yet the fun was irresistible.

It’s telling that Rossini’s three-part mini-cycle Regata Venezia was more warmly received by the Aix-en-Provence audience than any of Trottmann’s homegrown repertoire; telling but probably unsurprising given the music’s audience-friendly showboating. This is not to patronise the patrons of the Festival de Pâques, it’s just that the ultra-skimpy programme notes gave little assistance to anyone unfamiliar with the mélodies on offer, and from Shéhérazade onwards the sequence of French items foxed those present who had assumed (to infer from their premature applause) that Asie was the beginning and end of it. Access to the sung texts would have helped, or at the very least a listing that included each individual song title. Still, the Italian of Rossini gave everyone something to grab onto, especially in a performance as swinging as this by their brilliant young compatriot. And as an epic epilogue Trottmann's sprightly rendition of La danza was a welcome bonus.